An Honest Instinct

Controversial photographer Joel-Peter Witkin reflects on a graceful end

Photographer Joel-Peter Witkin. Photograph by Roberto Rosales.
By Leslie Linthicum

“The first thing I should say,” photographer Joel-Peter Witkin told a writer for Vanity Fair decades ago, “is I am not a monster.”

His photographic canon—stylized portraits of cross-dressers, amputees, masked nudes, body parts, and corpses —has been called grotesque, perverted, and macabre.

But shuffling around his photo studio in Albuquerque’s South Valley in sweatpants and slippers, wearing his signature oversized glasses and a T-shirt printed with one of his most famous images, the 83-year-old comes across as anything but dark.

He jokes a lot. And when he laughs his eyes squeeze closed and his entire body gets in on the joke. Witkin at the end of his career is a man at peace with himself and with the controversial art he will leave the world.

Joel-Peter Witkin, Studio of the Painter Courbet, 1990. Courtesy the artist.

It’s been quite a career. He has received the International Center of Photography Award and the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, and his work can be found in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney in New York, the Bibliothéque Nationale de France in Paris and the Stedelijk in Amsterdam. The Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Museum of Modern Art in Moscow have celebrated his career with retrospectives. Among celebrity collectors, his fans include actor Richard Gere and the late Dennis Hopper.

Joel-Peter Witkin, Satiro, Mexico, 1992. Courtesy the artist.

Withering criticism has greeted his work as often as critical acclaim and fame.

Grotesque. Disgusting. Stomach-turning. Exploitation. Astonishing perversity.

“This has been an issue with Joel his entire career,” says Catherine Edelman, who formerly represented Witkin at her Chicago art gallery for more than thirty years. “People either love his work or they don’t.”

Edelman, who met Witkin when she was studying photography in graduate school, says Witkin’s body of work rightly places him in the ranks of world-renowned photographers, but that has never quieted his critics.

Joel-Peter Witkin, Siamese Twins, Los Angeles, 1988. Courtesy the artist.

Often, Witkin’s elaborately staged portraits include Christian iconography alongside nudity or body parts, with staging and costuming that echoes the Italian Renaissance.

“Since Joel’s work deals with Christianity and art history, it can be interpreted by a non-art audience as sacrilegious—even though that is not at all how Joel feels or what his art is about,” Edelman says.

Witkin, a practicing Catholic, has always taken the blistering criticism in stride.

“My work has been interpreted in different ways, some of which are very, very negative. And I think that’s fine,” Witkin says. “We’re all trying to be honest and do the best we can to basically come to some point of joy, resolve, enlightenment, grace. I think my art has a redemptive aspect. I don’t leave the characters cold and dying out there. There’s always a sort of way back or ability to come up from where they are to a light, or to have redemption somehow.”

And, anyway, Witkin says, he couldn’t have been any other kind of artist.

“I’m not saying that I’m correct. I’m saying that I have the instinct, the honest instinct if there is such a thing, to go about doing what I do and I accept it. I don’t block it. I don’t negate it. I don’t minimize it. I do what is at the moment natural and viable to create photographs that tell of the times I’m living in and tell of the purpose of life and how we can live in a way that is emotive and better than we could even imagine. I think we are given grace or knowledge and the desire to make something happen that elevates life on Earth and makes it better.”

The Catalyst

Born in Brooklyn, Witkin was raised with an older sister and an identical twin brother—acclaimed figurative painter Jerome Witkin—by a Roman Catholic mother divorced from his Jewish father.

His first camera was a dual-image plastic model that his father gave him. He visited what was then called the freak show on Coney Island and his earliest pictures were portraits of society’s outsiders.

He enlisted in the army and was assigned to Fort Hood in Texas. When his three years were up, he enrolled in The Cooper Union in New York, getting a BFA in sculpture in 1974. While he was stationed in Texas, Witkin took road trips to New Mexico and clicked with the energy here. He also knew by reputation Van Deren Coke, then chairman of UNM’s well-known Department of Photography. So he moved to Albuquerque and enrolled in UNM’s masters program, where he began to understand himself as an artist and develop his unique style.

“Art school gave me the opportunity to see my emotions without censorship, both from myself and from other people,” Witkin says.

While at UNM, Witkin worked at Al Monte’s on Rio Grande, first as a bus boy and ultimately as head waiter, to pay the bills. He completed a master’s degree in 1976. As his work became known, he received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1982, 1984, and 1986, the year he received his MFA.

Joel-Peter Witkin, Cupid and Centaur in the Museum of Love, Marseilles, 1992. Courtesy the artist.

The Kiss

What drew Witkin to the dead? Was it the oft-repeated nature of his stateside army service, in which he was tasked with photographing soldiers who had taken their own lives or been killed in training accidents?

Witkin brushes the air with a hand and says that never happened; his army photography was much more mundane.

Witkin says a better hint to his influence is his grandmother, who lived with the family, and who had a never-healing sore on her leg from an injury that wasn’t treated. The smell of coffee brewing and of rotting flesh were part of daily life. The connection between decay, disability, and the comforts of family and home stuck with him.

Witkin explains his first foray into making art from the dead as part inspiration and part luck.

“My job was to be lucky enough to be connected to people who were open,” Witkin says. He was pursuing his MFA when he expressed an interest in using bodies in his art and was given a box containing the head of an elderly man by a pathologist at the medical school.

Witkin’s first question, as always when being given access to body parts, was, “What’s there to work with?”

“The head was cut in half,” Witkin recalls. “I was fascinated. Sometimes the first impression is the total impression, and that’s what happened. You have this head split in half. And me being a twin, and having those sides meet, touch, communicate—it was there.”

The result was The Kiss, a photo that ended Witkin’s relationship with the Pathology Department but launched him into a new level of critical acclaim and attention. It serves as a Rorschach test of his work. Is the image of what appears to be two elderly twins kissing tender and deep? Or is it exploitative and obscene?

Witkin has never faltered from his belief that his art is uplifting, and he has never made excuses for entering into the sacred space of death.

“I’m OK being there, because I’ve gotten permission to be there,” he explains. “I’ve been given an opportunity from this person I don’t know, who is not in life, to create an image of hopefully wonder and beauty. If it’s done right, if it’s done with purpose and love, then it reinforces life itself. If it’s done right, it reenforces goodness. I make the work honestly and openly and I believe in it. And that’s all I can do.”

Joel-Peter Witkin, Woman on a Table, New Mexico, 1987. Courtesy the artist.

The Work

As his work evolved, elaborate sets constructed in his spacious South Valley studio became his signature. He never snapped a photo of something he saw, instead reverse-engineering until he achieved a vision.

“An idea comes to me out of the blue,” Witkin explains. “I get this idea. I drift there and go there and think about it, make a drawing.”

When he is satisfied with the drawing, he works with a team to build and paint a set, to collect or construct props and to assemble a cast of models—oftentimes with physical disabilities—willing to pose nude, to be covered in powder, to wear masks. When the day of the shoot comes, he says, “As the visual director I have to have people, an environment, a look, lighting. The final stage, of course, is the photograph. And most of the time it’s pretty damn close to the sketches.”

Witkin has recruited amputees to pose for him, while others volunteered.

Ann Millett-Gallant, an art historian who is a congenital amputee whose arms end below her elbows and legs below her knees, was fascinated by Witkin’s photographs, particularly those of disabled models. And so she contacted him and, in 2007, came to Albuquerque to be what she calls “a performing agent” in the photograph Retablo, New Mexico (2007).

In her book Performing Amputation: The Photographs of Joel-Peter Witkin, Millett-Gallant writes, “Critics have characterized Witkin’s controversial work as too perverse, too blasphemous, and too grotesque, and for many, his framing of disability is one of the most offensive orchestrations.”

But, she asks, are Witkin’s photographs shocking because they are an extension of the exploitative freak show or because they reframe disability as grace and beauty?

Millett-Gallant has displayed a print of Retablo and the second Witkin photo she posed for in 2015, Hitler Posing With The Anti-Christ, 1937,  in her home.

“Witkin‘s work challenges cultural assumptions and judgments of bodies, what they do, and what should bring them pleasure,” she writes in her book. “It forces us to confront our greatest fears, anxieties, and inhibitions about our own bodies, morality, and inevitable mortality.”

Many photographers consider their work done after they have a print, but for Witkin that was always a second starting point. He often scratches, clouds, or otherwise manipulates his image.

“Joel was a maniac when he was working,” his wife Cynthia Bency-Witkin says.

“I had energy that just didn’t stop,” Witkin remembers. “Twenty-four hours a day just wasn’t enough. The energy was fierce. It was my passion and it’s what I loved to do. It was like a marriage of myself and the unknown.”

“And all of that hard work has allowed us to have an inventory that we can pull from,” Bency-Witkin says. The results of his manic energy are evident in the boxes of prints stacked in his studio.

Theirs has always been an unconventional marriage, involving polyamory and intermittent breaks.

They were married for twenty-one years, then divorced for twenty-one years. They remarried in 2021 and live together again on the farm that has been home to Witkin’s creative process for fifty years.

Joel-Peter Witkin, Vanity, 1990. Courtesy the artist.

The End

In 2018, Witkin was diagnosed with dementia.

“My memory is not that great,” says Witkin, who can recall in depth many aspects of his career and only a hazy sketch of others. “You have to accept it. And it’s preparation for death. It’s a loss, and death is the loss of life. So, it’s part of the train ride to death.”

The man responsible for introducing images of death into museum collections around the world and the homes of wealthy and celebrity collectors is in a stage of retirement and reflection now, and is comfortable with his own inevitable end.

“I look forward to it,” he says. “I think we live forever. I think we’re made by God and we’re on Earth and we have free will and we can make life better or horrible.”

He hasn’t made a photograph in several years.

“I think people should end gracefully. I’ve given everything and I couldn’t think of anything else I could share, and I stopped. I get up in the morning. There’s hot coffee. I go out and get the New York Times. And then the day happens. I figure that in the future, if my work is seen to have an association with longevity, power—all to the good. I’ve done the best I could.” 

Many of Joel-Peter Witkin’s photographs feature sensitive imagery and materials including cadavers and nudity. Out of respect for our readers, we have created an online gallery of some of Witkin’s more provocative images.

Please click here to view those photographs. Discretion is advised.

Leslie Linthicum is a writer and editor who lives in New Mexico.