Joel-Peter Witkin (born
September 13, 1939, in Brooklyn, New York City) is an American
Witkin was born to a Jewish father and Roman Catholic mother. He has a
twin brother, Jerome Witkin, who also plays a significant role in the art
world for his realistic paintings. Witkin's parents divorced when Witkin
was young because they were unable to transcend their religious
differences. He attended grammar school at Saint Cecelia's in Brooklyn and
went on to Grover Cleveland High School. He worked as war photographer
between 1961 and 1964 during the Vietnam war. In 1967, he decided to work
as a freelance photographer and became City Walls Inc. official
photographer. Later, he attended Cooper Union in New York where he studied
sculpture and became Bachelor of Arts in 1974. After the Columbia
University granted him a scholarship, he ended his studies at the
University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where he became Master of Fine
Witkin claims that his vision and sensibility were initiated by an episode
he witnessed when he was just a small child, a car accident that occurred
in front of his house in which a little girl was decapitated.
"It happened on a Sunday when my mother was escorting my twin brother and
me down the steps of the tenement where we lived. We were going to church.
While walking down the hallway to the entrance of the building, we heard
an incredible crash mixed with screaming and cries for help. The accident
involved three cars, all with families in them. Somehow, in the confusion,
I was no longer holding my mother's hand. At the place where I stood at
the curb, I could see something rolling from one of the overturned cars.
It stopped at the curb where I stood. It was the head of a little girl. I
bent down to touch the face, to speak to it -- but before I could touch it
someone carried me away."
He also claims that the
difficulties in his family were an influence for his work too. His
favourite artist is Giotto, but the most obvious artistic influences on
his work are Surrealism (particularly Max Ernst) and Baroque art. His
photographic techniques draw on early Daguerreotypes and on the work of E.
His work often deals with such themes as death, corpses (or pieces of
them), and various outsiders such as dwarfs, transsexuals, hermaphrodites,
and physically deformed people. His complex tableaux often recall
religious episodes or famous classical paintings. Because of the
transgressive nature of the contents of his pictures, his works have been
labeled exploitative and have sometimes shocked public opinion. His art
was often marginalized because of this challenging aspect.
He employs a highly intuitive approach to the physical process of making
the photograph, including scratching the negative, bleaching or toning the
print, and an actual hands-in-the-chemicals printing technique. This
experimentation began after seeing a 19th-century ambrotype of a woman and
her ex-lover who had been scratched from the frame.