Joel-Peter Witkin is an artist who actually works directly with death – some of his morbid tableaux feature actual corpses or body parts.
His scratched, distressed photographs look as though they are rediscovered crime scene evidence from a Victorian era horror. Nude men and women mix with animal parts, masks, random bits of machinery, severed limbs, or bowls of fruit. Some of his works are borderline pornographic; most are deeply disturbing.
Witkin was a war photographer in Vietnam and claims to have touched the decapitated head of a little girl following a horrific car accident when he was a child. Raised Roman Catholic, Witkin combines an old world gothic sensibility with an intense interest in deformity, perversity, and death.
In the 1980s, Witkin advertised for models, asking for the following: “Pinheads, dwarfs, giants, hunchbacks, pre-op transsexuals, bearded women, people with tails, horns, wings, reversed hands or feet, anyone born without arms, legs, eyes, breast, genitals, ears, nose, lips. All people with unusually large genitals. All manner of extreme visual perversion. Hermaphrodites and teratoids (alive and dead). Anyone bearing the wounds of Christ.”
This attraction to depicting the ill-formed and strange is reminiscent of the photographs of Diane Arbus or Robert Mapplethorpe. The same debate of “is it art or is it exploitation?” that surrounded their work is often thrown at Witkin. How do I feel about it? Hey, I revere the Morbid Imagination, where do you think I stand? Perversity, deformity, decay, death, pain, and alienation are just as valid as subjects for art as sunsets and royalty. To me, Witkin has a definite style that is compelling and admirable.
Here is a link to some of his works