“The Collector of Fluids,” 1982
“I wanted my photographs to be as powerful as the last thing a person sees or remembers before death” —Joel-Peter Witkin
Looking at his vast body of work, it’s not difficult at all to take photographer Joel-Peter Witkin at face value when he claims that his singular artform was influenced by his first sexual encounter with a pre-op transsexual in a carnival freak show (“that was… a very, very freeing experience”), the fact that his grandmother was missing a leg and by seeing a young girl decapitated in an automobile accident:
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.”
“Le Basier,” 1982
Although Witkin is a photographer, he is equally a sculptor of corpses, often having to travel to Mexico to make certain pieces that would be illegal for him to produce in America. His shocking—some would say “sickening”—portraits and photographic tableaux mimic classical paintings with the artist’s preferred models of physically challenged people, dwarves, intersex individuals, giants, bearded ladies, the morbidly obese and amputees. Despite the controversial nature of his erotically-charged death and deformity-obsessed imagery, Witkin is one of the top collected photographers in the world.
“Melvin Burkhart: Human Oddity,” 1985
“Las Meninas,” 1987
“Execution of an Extraterrestrial, Petersburg, Virginia, 1864,” 2013
Thomas Marino’s feature length documentary from 2013, Joel-Peter Witkin: An Objective Eye is an in-depth portrait of the artist. The first third of the film is free to view on YouTube.
“Vile Bodies” a short documentary on Joel-Peter Witkin.