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, androgynes, carcases, people with odd physical capabilities, 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, Velásquez 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 medicals 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 and beautiful, grotesque yet bold in their defiance – a 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.