This photographer must have been my favourite photographer for over 10 years as he masters the subjects of death, decay and distinctive otherness. His dark and edgy images are deeply disturbing and at the same time intensely beautiful in their ethereal captivating intensity.

I had stumbled upon his work by sheer lucky coincidence. I had been ordered to ‘ go find some inspiration’ at the library of my art college and I was randomly pulling books from their shelves. It turned out to be a great little trip – in the same pile of books I discovered one about side show freaks, which images would become my obsession for the remainder of 1999.

Like others, I had been under the false impression that Witkin’s work was much, much older because of the worn look of the prints, damage that is normally only created with the passing of time. Not so in this case. His techniques include scratching the negative, bleaching or toning the print, and using a hands-in-the-chemicals printing technique. To me, his technique, seamlessly combined with the subject matter makes up for a large part of the appeal to the images.

Witkin was actually born on September 13, 1939, in Brooklyn, New York City as part of a triplet (only 1 brother survived). He claims that his vision and sensibility were initiated by an episode he witnessed when he was just a small child, a car accident that occurred in front of his house in which a little girl was decapitated.

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”.

He started taking photographs of the dead between 1958 and 1967 after serving in the US army. Some of his works constructed with corpses had to be taken in Mexico to get around some restrictive US laws. This could be one of the reasons he moved to New Mexico permanently in 1975.

He solicited his living subjects by manner of advertisements, listing his interests: “…Physical prodigies of all kinds, pinheads, …pre-op transsexuals, …active or retired side-show performers, …people who live as comic book heroes, … people with tails, horns, wings, fins, claws, reversed feet or hands, elephantine limbs, … people with complete rubber wardrobes…. private collections of instruments of torture, romance, or human, animal or alien parts… any living myth. Beings from other planets. Anyone bearing the wounds of Christ. Anyone claiming to be God. God.”

Joel-Peter has one son, Kersen Witkin. He’s well on his way to becoming a known painter in his own right. Check out his website here.