Joel-Peter Witkin is a Jewish American photographer
He was born on September 13, 1939 in Brooklyn, New York, to a Jewish father and a Roman Catholic mother and has a twin brother, Jerome Witkin, who is a well-known painter. Witkin's parents were unable to transcend their religious differences and divorced while he was still young. Their mother raised Joel-Peter and his twin brother in a deeply religious atmosphere. He attended grammar school at Saint Cecelia's in Brooklyn and went on to Grover Cleveland High School.
Witkin bought his first camera in the mid-1950s and taught himself the fundamentals of camera use. Even his first photographs were unusual, depicting the many unsettling experiences of his childhood. His very first photograph portrayed a rabbi who claimed to have spoken to God. At the request of his brother, Witkin later took his camera to the Coney Island freak show. Jerome wanted the photographs for his own unique paintings.
Joel-Peter Witkin was drafted into the army in 1961. In order to have some control over his assignment, Witkin enlisted in the army for three years as a combat photographer. Between 1961 and 1964, Witkin photographed the Vietnam War. His assignments included recording on film the bodies of soldiers who had committed suicide or died in training accidents.
In 1967 Witkin decided to work as a freelance photographer and became City Walls Inc. official photographer. Following his army service, Witkin attended Cooper Union in New York and received his B.F.A. in 1974. During this same period, Columbia University awarded Witkin a fellowship in poetry. Witkin completed his graduate studies in photography and art history at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, receiving his M.A. in 1976 and his M.F.A. in 1981.
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 young 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.
Witkin also claims that the difficulties in his family were an influence for his work. His favorite 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. J. Bellocq.
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.
Witkin 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.