Joel-Peter Witkin

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Joel-Peter Witkin
Joel Peter Witikin (12) (cropped).jpg
Witkin in 2009
Born (1939-09-13) September 13, 1939 (age 83)
Brooklyn, New York City

Joel-Peter Witkin (born September 13, 1939) is an American photographer who lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His work often deals with themes such as death, corpses (and sometimes dismembered portions thereof), often featuring ornately decorated photographic models, including people with dwarfism, transgender and intersex persons, as well as people living with a range of physical features which Witkin is often praised for presenting in poses which celebrate and honor their physiques in an elevated, artistic manner. Witkin's complex tableaux often recall religious episodes or classical paintings.[1]


Witkin was born to a Jewish father and Roman Catholic mother. His twin brother, Jerome Witkin,[2] and son Kersen Witkin, are also painters. Witkin's parents divorced when he was young because they were unable to overcome their religious differences[citation needed]. He attended grammar school at Saint Cecelia's in Brooklyn and went on to Grover Cleveland High School. In 1961 Witkin enlisted in the United States Army with the intention of capturing war photography during the Vietnam war. However, due to scheduling conflicts, Witkin never saw combat in Vietnam. Witkin spent his military time at Fort Hood, Texas, and was mostly in charge of Public Information and classified photos.[3] In 1967, he became the official photographer for City Walls Inc. He attended Cooper Union in New York, where he studied sculpture, attaining a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1974. Columbia University granted him a scholarship for graduate school, but his Master of Fine Arts degree is from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.[4]

Influences and themes[edit]

Witkin claims that his vision and sensibility sprang from an episode he witnessed as a young child, an automobile accident 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[5]

He says his family's difficulties also influenced his work. His favorite artist is Giotto. His photographic techniques draw on early Daguerreotypes and on the work of E. J. Bellocq.[1]

Those of Witkin's works which use corpses have had to be created in Mexico to get around restrictive US laws. Because of the transgressive nature of the contents of his images, his works have been labelled exploitative and have sometimes shocked public opinion.[1]

His techniques include scratching the negative, bleaching or toning the print, and using a 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.[1]

Joel-Peter Witkin's photograph "Sanitarium" inspired the final presentation of Alexander McQueen's Spring/Summer 2001 collection based on avian imagery, the walls of another box within the faux psychiatric ward collapsed to reveal a startling tableau vivant: a reclining, masked nude breathing through a tube and surrounded by fluttering moths.


In July 2011, filming began on the feature-length documentary, Joel-Peter Witkin: An Objective Eye. The film, directed by Thomas Marino, examines Witkin's life and photographs. Along with interviews with Joel-Peter Witkin, the film features interviews from gallery owners, prominent artists, photographers, and scholars who share insight into the impact of Witkin's work and influence on modern culture. Filming took place in Albuquerque, Los Angeles, New York City, and Paris. The film was released on July 6, 2013 for digital download and streaming/rental. The film will be part of the permanent collections at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris, France, and the Biblioteca Nacional de Chile in Santiago, Chile.[6][7]

"Joel-Peter Witkin: An Objective Eye" was first publicly shown in Santiago, Chile at the Biblioteca Nacional de Chile on July 31, 2013, as part of the opening of the exhibition, "Vanitas: Joel-Peter Witkin en Chile".[8] Those in attendance of this premiere included Joel-Peter Witkin, his wife Barbara, and gallery owner Baudoin Lebon.

In 2017, a documentary about him and his brother, Jerome Witkin, was made by Trisha Ziff, entitled Witkin and Witkin.[9]


  • 1959: Group show at the Museum of Modern Art, NYC
  • 1981: Group show at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
  • 1983: Exhibited in Kansas City Art Institute. Exhibited in Stedelijk Mus, Amsterdam.
  • 1985: Exhibited in San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Group show at the Whitney Biennial
  • 1986: Exhibited in Brooklyn Museum. Group show at Palis de Tokyo, Paris
  • 1988: Exhibited in Centro de Arte Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid.
  • 1989: Exhibited in Palais de Tokyo, Paris.
  • 1991: Exhibited in Museum Of Modern Art Haifa, Israel
  • 1995: Exhibited in Guggenheim Museum, NYC. Exhibited in II Castello de Rivoli Museum., Turin
  • 1996: Exhibited in Rencontres de la Photograpie, Arles, France. Group show at La Photographie Contemporaine en France
  • 1997: Group show at Hayward Gallery, London
  • 1998: Exhibited in Museum of Fine Arts, Santa Fe. Group show at Strasbourg Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art
  • 1999: Group show at The Louvre, Paris
  • 2000: Group show at Musée Bourdelle, Paris. Group show at The High Mus. Art, Ga.,
  • 2002: Group show at National Gallery of Canada. Group show at The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Group show at The Whitney Museum, NYC
  • 2004: Group show at National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.
  • 2005: Exhibited in Moscow House of Photography. Group show at Guggenheim, Bilbao. Group show at Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago
  • 2007: Exhibited in The Invisible Landscape, National Gallery of Canada
  • 2010: Exhibited in Bodies, Fotografiska Museum, Stockholm,[10]
  • 2012: Exhibited in Heaven or Hell, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.[11]
  • 2013: Exhibited in "Vanitas: Joel-Peter Witkin en Chile", Biblioteca Nacional de Chile, Santiago. Joel-Peter Witkin: An Objective Eye documentary premiered at the opening of this exhibition.[8]


  1. ^ a b c d "Joel-Peter Witkin".
  2. ^ "Jerome Witkin".
  3. ^ "Joel-Peter Witkin: An Objective Eye (Bonus Scene: Vietnam/JFK)". December 22, 2013. Archived from the original on December 12, 2021 – via YouTube.
  4. ^ "Etherton Gallery - Joel-Peter Witkin". Archived from the original on October 29, 2011.
  5. ^ Storck, Jeanne (2001). "Band of Outsiders: Williamsburg's Renegade Artists". Archived from the original on September 28, 2007. Retrieved August 19, 2007.
  6. ^ Lowe, Juli (December 2, 2011). "Joel-Peter Witkin: An Objective Eye".
  7. ^ "Joel-Peter Witkin: An Objective Eye" – via
  8. ^ a b [1] Archived August 12, 2013, at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ Gould, Rachel (June 15, 2018). "A Poignant Documentary Examines the Tension Between Photographer Joel-Peter Witkin and His Identical Twin, Painter Jerome Witkin". Artnet News. Retrieved November 5, 2021.
  10. ^ [2] Archived May 16, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
  11. ^ "Espace presse". BnF – Site institutionnel.

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