Joel-Peter Witkin is an American photographer whose images conjure feelings of unease due to their graphic nature. They often contain scenes of nudity, torture, death, disfiguration and other unsettling scenes – basically, weird shit, like the pictures below.

…..he also seems to be a big fan of bestiality by the look of things.

There’s almost a reasonable explanation for Joel-Peter’s distinctive style, too. Here, he describes a shocking series of events, which took place when he was just a small child:

“It happened on a Sunday when my mother was escorting my twin brother and me down the steps of the tenement where we lived. We were going to church. While walking down the hallway to the entrance of the building, we heard an incredible crash mixed with screaming and cries for help. The accident involved three cars, all with families in them. Somehow, in the confusion, I was no longer holding my mother’s hand. At the place where I stood at the curb, I could see something rolling from one of the overturned cars. It stopped at the curb where I stood. It was the head of a little girl. I bent down to touch the face, to speak to it — but before I could touch it someone carried me away”

An incident such as this would warp the mind of anybody. Obviously the sight of a sheared skull stuck with Joel-Peter, inspiring his artistic direction. He also spent time as a war photographer in Vietnam, which would undoubtedly have had influenced his raw, almost emotionless, gruesome creations.

I feel the art direction in Joel-Peter’s images is heavily inspired by the early Daguerreotype and Ambrotype image-creating techniques. A first-time viewer could easily mistake any of the artist’s images as something straight out of the late 1800s / early 1900s, with his style being very similar to portraits from that era, particularly the ‘Storyville’ prostitue photos of E.J. Bellocq (below).

Considering the technology and fashion during Bellocq’s time, as well as the obvious wear on remaining glass negatives, we can understand why his images would look like the one above. We can assume, however, that Witkin sets out with the aim of creating this look and feel even down to the scratches and damage (as below).

Working solely in the contrast-heavy world of black and white presents Witkin with a certain set of boundaries, which he clearly revels in. Contrasting dark backgrounds with pale white flesh helps his strange characters jump out of their images far more than if they were to be displayed in colour or against lighter backgrounds. This adds a certain subtle shock value to his images as our eye is immediately drawn to the uneasy centralised figure.

For me, Joel-Peter Witkin’s art direction is all about the beautiful 1800s freak show. By tackling modern taboos with a classic atmosphere he challenges the viewer and himself in each and every image. No matter how obscure the subject, it is undeniable that he has created a unique concept and narrative which runs throughout all of his images. The more you delve into his images, the more they draw you in as a fascinated spectator – much like those at the freak shows I feel he is aiming to celebrate.

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