Joel-Peter Witkin (American, b.1939) is a photographer whose work deals with outsider subjects not widely covered by other photographers. His photography career began without any official study; he worked as a war photographer during the Vietnam War between 1961 and 1964. After Vietnam, Witkin continued his career as a freelance photographer, becoming the official photographer of City Walls Inc. Later study in sculpture at Columbia University earned him a BFA in 1974. He also earned a MFA from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque in 1986.
Witkin's work often centers on death and corpses as themes; he has frequently featured dismembered corpses in his work. These dark themes were inspired by a childhood incident in which Witkin encountered the dismembered head of a girl after a car accident. The look of early Daguerreotypes and the works of E.J. Bellocq (American, 1873–1949) also inspire his art. Witkin's work with corpses is created primarily in Mexico, where there are fewer restrictions in the handling of dead bodies. After taking his photographs, Witkin puts them through an extensive development process. He uses a hands-on chemical development method, often bleaching his prints, toning them, or scratching the negative.
Witkin's work extends beyond the theme of death though, with pieces using amateur models in a studio setting. His models are either beautiful or deformed, with his photographs presenting each model fully to explore themes ranging from the mundane to the erotic. His photographs have been widely exhibited, beginning with a 1959 group showing in New York at the Museum of Modern Art. Larger solo exhibitions didn't begin until the 1980s though, with a showing in New York in 1980 at Projects Studio One. After this, he continued to present his photography at the Galerie Baudoin in Madrid (1990), the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia Museum (1988), the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa (2004), and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris.
Some of Witkin's more famous works include his 1997 Female King, featuring a woman over six feet in height and 400 pounds in weight posed as an ancient tribal king. His 1997 Abundance is also well-known, with its subject being a legless and armless woman placed in an urn. The woman's head is covered with flowers, fruits, and pearls, presenting a picture of nurturing. The Catherine Edelman Gallery in Chicago serves as Witkin's gallery. He currently lives and works in Albuquerque, NM.