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Joel-Peter Witkin

Joel-Peter Witkin at the time the photographs were made that are discussed in this interview.

Joel-Peter Witkin was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1939. In 1959, Edward Steichen, head of the department of photography at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), selected one of Witkin’s photographs for its permanent collection when Witkin is 16 years old.
Enlists in the U.S. Army as a photographer from 1961-1964. In 1974 he receives a B.F.A. in
sculpture from The Cooper Union, the same year awarded a fellowship in writing from
Columbia University. In 1976 he receives a M.A. in Photography from the University of New
Mexico, and then 1986 he receives a M.F.A. from the University of New Mexico. He has won
numerous awards including four National Endowments in photography and the I.C.P. Infinity Award. His photographs have been exhibited internationally and are included in many museum collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art (USA), Centro de Arte Reina Sofia (Spain), The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) (USA), Centre Georges Pompidou (France), The Guggenheim Museum (USA), The J. Paul Getty Museum (USA), The Whitney Museum (USA), and Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) (England).
Other achievements include Decorated Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1990 and Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres of France in 2000. Over thirty books have been published on his work. Joel-Peter Witkin lives and works in Albuquerque, New Mexico with his wife Cynthia.
Joel-Peter Witkin is a photographer whose images of the human condition are undeniably
powerful. For more than forty years, he has pursued his interest in spirituality and how it
impacts the physical world in which we exist. Finding beauty within the grotesque, Witkin
pursues this complex issue through people most often cast aside by society-human spectacles including hermaphrodites, dwarfs, amputees, androgynies, carcasses, people with odd physical anomalies, fetishists, and “any living myth… anyone bearing the wounds of Christ”. His fascination with other people’s physicality has inspired works that confront our sense of normalcy and decency while constantly examining the teachings handed down through Christianity.
His constant reference to paintings from art history including the works of Picasso, Balthus,
Goya, Velasquez and Miro are testaments to his need to create a new history for himself. By using imagery and symbols from the past, Witkin celebrates our history while constantly
redefining its present-day context. Visiting medical schools, morgues and insane asylums
around the world, Witkin seeks out his collaborators who, in the end, represent the numerous personas of the artist himself.
The resulting photographs are haunting, beautiful and grotesque yet bold in their defiance
hideous beauty that is as compelling as it is taboo. Witkin begins each image by sketching his ideas on paper, perfecting every detail by arranging the scene before he gets into the studio to stage his elaborate tableaus. Once photographed, Witkin spends hours in the darkroom, scratching and piercing his negatives, transforming them into images that look made, rather than taken. Through printing, Witkin reinterprets his original idea in a final act of adoration.
Joel-Peter Witkin lets us look into his created world which is both frightening and fascinating as he seeks to dismantle our preconceived notions about sexuality and physical beauty. Through his imagery we gain a greater understanding about human difference and tolerance. “My work is based on the nature of man and his relation to the divine. In the work, I attempt to establish a creative and intellectual standard for still photography in a society in moral free fall.” – Joel-Peter Witkin

Note: All the images discussed in order in the interview can be seen here.

Joel-Peter Witkin (b. 1939) Contemporary Images of Christ: Roof: Rest After The Passion (Batman and Christ) Version 2, (Batman with Christ Returns Newspaper), 1973 Signed, titled, dated, and annotated ‘4PW’ and ‘1/6’ in pencil on verso Gelatin silver print, printed c. 1973
Joel-Peter Witkin (b. 1939) Mini-Mot-Prea-Tat, NM, 1979 Signed, titled, dated, and annotated ‘4PW’ and ‘1/1 Unique Print’ in pencil on mount verso Gelatin silver print mounted on board, printed c. 1979
Joel-Peter Witkin (b. 1939) Clock-Faced Man, 1972 Signed, titled, dated, annotated ‘4/15’ in pencil on verso Gelatin silver print, printed c. 1972 15 5/8 x 10 1/2 in (39.7 x 26.7 cm) Sheet: 19 7/8 x 16 in Edition of 15 + 3 AP (4/15)
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