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Bringing Fine Art to Life: The Sinister yet Beautiful Photography of Joel Peter Witkin

Updated on August 24, 2018
Peter Witkin: born September 13, 1939, in Brooklyn, New York City
Peter Witkin: born September 13, 1939, in Brooklyn, New York City

A Fine Art Photographer Like No Other

In modern Britain today, emphasis is put upon protecting rights of minority groups, whether it is racial, ethnic, social, homosexuality or people suffering with disabilities. Great care is taken to assure that they are accepted members of society and treated with equal concern. World wide, these values vary from one country to another.

Joel Peter Witkin (Brooklyn, New York, 1938) has made it his plight to highlight and celebrate the existence of the varying groups of human beings. He takes it a step further and explores the use of shocking imagery as a tool to “challenge our perception” (Masters of fine art photography, 2007) of these individuals.

Witkin’s morbid fascination began as a child after witnessing a tragic car accident. Religious conflicts within the family caused even further problems during his development, which lead him to question his identity. The need to “create a new history for himself” (Masters of fine art photography, 2007) became clear, and the spiritual journey that followed has formed the basis for his work ever since

Love and Redemption

I chose to evaluate the collection “Love and Redemption”, (2003) because I think the title stands for everything Witkin represents…“the need to ascend to love, but through darkness” (Hovatland, 2007).

Figure 1. Crucified Horse (1999)
Figure 1. Crucified Horse (1999)

Religious Influence

By definition, Redemption is “a concept referring to forgiveness or absolution for past sins and protection from eternal damnation” (Redemption, 2008). In other words, those who ‘bear the wounds of Christ’ (outcasts of society) should have the same rights as everybody else. Even animals (see figure 1).

Witkin uses animal remains to “revive them, by giving them a purpose that otherwise they wouldn't have had” (Horvatland, 2007). The crucified horse is a good example of this. I think the ropes are symbolic of the subject’s new found freedom in the afterlife. It also makes reference to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

The composition is very well structured and a lot of props are used to creatively fill space. Personally, I think the rich background distracts from the subject in question. Perhaps this is done intentionally to tell a story about the horse’s life. Alternatively it puts his existence into context with other creatures.

Some say Witkin’s images have “atonement for blasphemy” (Horvatland, 2007). (See figure 2) However, He uses images of profanity to convey a message of love.

Figure 2. Queer Saint (1999)
Figure 2. Queer Saint (1999)
Figure 3. Story from a book (Paris1999)
Figure 3. Story from a book (Paris1999)


Witkin is often criticised by the public for exploiting his models but this is not the case. His intentions are not to harm his subjects but instead to, “lift and redeem them” (Joel Peter Witkin, 2003).

I can understand why the public express their concern, especially when human remains act merely as a prop for a still life (see figure 3). However, the sheer elegance of the composition transforms the grotesque into something quite beautiful.

I think “Story from a book” is heavily influenced by the Baroque art movement due to its elaborate and ornate appearance. The strong contrasts of light and shadow are also trademarks of this genre. (See figure 4).

Figure 4. Pieter Claesz, Vanitas Still Life  c. 1630 (Mauritshuis, The Hague)
Figure 4. Pieter Claesz, Vanitas Still Life c. 1630 (Mauritshuis, The Hague)

When taking a photographic portrait, one normally tries to capture the subj save ect’s personality and disposition. In the case of “Story from a book”, Witkin uses a blindfold to deliberately cover facial expression. This allows Witkin to express his own artistic interpretation of the image.

I think death signifies the end of an era, but the start of something far greater.

Through death we are finally set free…allegedly.

Figure 5. Anna akhmatova (1998)
Figure 5. Anna akhmatova (1998)


Witkin makes constant reference to the past, as a way to “celebrate our history while constantly redefining its present day context.” (Masters of fine art photography, 2007)

The following image not only plays homage to famous artists from the past, (including the works of Bosch, Goya, Velasquez, Miro, Botticelli and Picasso) but it makes direct reference to time itself. (See figure 5)

In my opinion, over exposed photographs create the illusion of age.

“Interrupted reading” reminds me of a very traditional portrait painting, due to the woman’s posture and attire. What the image doesn’t do is glamorise. The crudeness of black and white tells the story as it is.

The use of empty space might be symbolic of her loneliness in today’s world or the distance we create between unique individuals. It might also signify the change in people’s attitudes over the course of history.

Figure 7. Un Santo Oscuro
Figure 7. Un Santo Oscuro

'Freaks of Nature'

As an open minded individual, I am not upset by images of death but images of pain and suffering does affect me.

The following photograph from Witkin’s collection features a thirty five year old thalidomide victim. He has no arms, no legs or skin. Drug abuse is the only form of pleasure he indulges in.

My first reaction is sadness. My second reaction is guilt because I often take my health for granted. The arrow depicted through the subject’s chest is a very powerful symbol. I believe this makes reference to “The martyrdom of Saint Sebastian” (1849) whom was sentenced to death for being Christian.

Witkin “never deals in pain for pain's sake - but only as a way to clarification”. (Hovatland, 2007) From my point of view, this goal was accomplished.

If I had to choose one image to represent the theme “love and redemption” it would definitely be this one. (Figure 7) If there is a god, how could he allow such a thing to happen? 

Image Manipulation

To my knowledge, all Witkin’s photographs use image manipulation, even simple compositions. (See figure 9 below)

In general, it is hard to distinguish which parts of the photograph are real and which are not. This “forces us to embrace what we’d rather leave unexamined.” (Masters of fine art photography, 2007)

He carefully plans his compositions one by one, which is often apparent by the strategically placed scratches and the constructed nature of his photographs.

In comparison to other photographers, Witkin's approach to photography could be considered very outlandish. However, this goes hand in hand with the nature of his themes. This is because he is an opportunist lead by the passion to discover unfound beauty.

Figure 9 Purgatory
Figure 9 Purgatory

The Use of Colour (or Lack of It)

In my opinion, colour dilutes the meaning of an image and it leaves nothing to the imagination. Witkin isn’t scared of colour but he uses it infrequently.

Black and white photography is known for its Character. Honesty shines through but an element of mystery still remains. I think black and white imagery plays an important focus in Witkin’s work and complements his themes beautifully.

In my opinion, Black and white carries similar connotations to the Christian motto ‘good versus evil’.


Witkin’s photography is interpreted in many different ways depending on the cultural and social background of the audience. Through his imagery we observe life through fresh eyes and we are confronted by the things we ultimately hide from.

His imaginative compositions create an air of mystery and allow us to overcome our initial disgust. Perhaps this runs parallel to the way Witkin deals with his own personal issues.

I am most inspired by the distressed quality of Witkin’s photographs. As an artist myself, I appreciate that every aesthetic decision could potentially ruin a piece of work. There is an element of risk involved but through risk eventually brings knowledge.


EUROART MAGAZINE, (2007), the mortal photographs at the divine altar, viewed on: 15 feb 2008,

MASTERS OF FINE ART PHOTOGRAPHY, (2007), Joel-peter witkin, viewed on: 20 feb 2008

HOVATLAND, (2007), frank horvat photographie: entre vue, viewed on: 03 mar 2008,

REDEMPTION, (2008), Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia, viewed on: 07 mar 2008,

JOEL PETER WITKIN, (2003) love and redemption, viewed on 04 mar 2008,

Here is an Interview with Joel- Peter Witkin - He Has Such an Amazing Personality!


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