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Joel-Peter Witkin


Hero Image for Joel-Peter Witkin

Joel-Peter Witkin (b. 1939) leaves no one unmoved with his controversial photographs. Since the 1970s, Witkin has sought to elucidate the beauty inside the horrid, and confront whatever darkness may exist within us and around us. He is renown for creating elaborate sets, using models and objects to realize his vision. Bodies is a journey through Witkin’s mystifying and captivating artistry, from his earliest works until present day.

leaves no one unmoved

Joel-Peter Witkin’s imagery pushes the boundaries of our perception of sexuality and physical beauty. Central to his oeuvre is the human body. He is fascinated by the grotesque but also by the beauty of people. A recurring motif in his work is people whose bodies challenge the physical norm, such as handicapped individuals and dwarfs, among others. He also references people on the margins of society, such as the prostitute, the fetishist, and the sideshow freak. Witkin feels connected to his models, and considers himself to be one of them. By portraying people with physical and sexual deviations he challenges our perception of societal norms. Joel-Peter Witkin’s work is as eerily beautiful as it is provocative.

Some of Witkin’s most controversial photographs depict human remains. Witkin began experimenting with cadavers in the 1980s, when he received permission to photograph a human head that was donated to science. Witkin has continued his work with body parts. Many of the resulting images bring to mind the vanitas paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries. Vanitas paintings often featured a human skull, and were meant to remind the viewer of the transience of our earthly existence. Witkin clearly references vanitas works in his photograph entitled Face of A Woman 2004 featuring an ornamental photograph of a human head surrounded by flowers.

Joel-Peter Witkin’s creative ingenuity culminates in a rich tapestry of references from art history, literature, science, and society. His work has long been canonized into history books on photography. Witkin is represented in the collections of the Modern Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Centre Georges Pompidou to name only a few. Fotografiska is pleased to feature a selection of his work in our gallery, which is dedicated to the most celebrated names in fine art photography.

Attention: This exhibition may contain imagery unsuitable for children and sensitive persons.

Listen to Joel-Peter Witkin in our audioguide, produced by Finbar Krook Rosato.

“The body is the armor of the Soul. It is birth canal, sex, identity. The physical, us. I photograph the body to show its difference and beauty. The body is what we kiss and kill for-shackle and crown... All in the name of life.”
– Joel-Peter Witkin