Joel-Peter Witkin was born in 1939 in Brooklyn. His father was an Orthodox Russian Jew, his mother an Italian and a believing Catholic. These religious differences led to their divorce, so Witkin and his siblings were raised by his mother and grandmother. Witkin was already seriously interested in photography at the age of sixteen, when he met Edward Steichen, who even accepted one of his images as a permanent piece in an exhibition he organized. Witkin frequently visited Coney Island, where he was intrigued by a circus show featuring deformed babies as he felt at home among them. Unfortunately, the show didn’t need a photographer, so Witkin stayed in New York, first working in advertising studios and then creating the world of his own imagination that he could photograph.
He was drafted as a soldier in 1961, documenting accidents and deaths during military exercises there. So Witkin became acquainted with the strange early on, and the extraordinary became a natural part of his daily life. He learned to accept sickness and suffering in life and to consider death as a natural part of life. The themes of Witkin’s paintings — body, nude, and still life — are controversial because Witkin always finds beauty in the grotesque. The photographer deals with the tensions between heaven and hell, sexuality and death, and the many concepts of beauty. As Witkin remarked in a 2010 interview:
"The body is the armor of the soul."
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