“I wanted my photographs to be as powerful as the last thing a person sees or remembers before death”

-Joel-Peter Witkin


Without a doubt, the most forceful and profound emotion ever to be felt by every single human being, is love, and the other being fear. The reason behind this is that these feelings, standing amid their polarity, are the most intense among the basic motivational or locomotive forces in our lives. Fear, is universally thrown at the issue of death. Though death is an essential part of the human life, we seem to push it sidewise and avoid incorporating it in our everyday dialogue such as during communal dining, social events et al. for fear put the particular issue under the analysis ‘taboo’.

Across culture, religion and time, ‘death’ have been treated as if it is ‘the uncle we never met’. Always spoken about, nonetheless never actually meet vis-à-vis. Our awareness upon death, elicits the feeling of fear and able, in most cases, to bring about bigger philosophical questions apropos to the existentiality and the absurdity of human life. At the beginning of their collaborative piece, Phyllis Palgi and Henry Abramovitch (1984) asserts that ‘Death awareness is a natural sequel to the development of self-awareness—an intrinsic attribute of humankind’. (p. 385)

This awareness is instigated inside of us, when death comes upon an acquaintance or anyone that is close to us at times it is unforeseen. This particular event is usually impactful and striking as it functions as a remembrance agent for the humankind that sometimes seem diverted from the issue. However, when we come across an experience that have correlation to death, we mankind tend to portray a visceral reaction towards the representations of the quietus of the human anatomy. (Strong, 2015)

The dead body or cadaver or corpse falls under the analysis ‘abjection’. Abject according to Julia Kristeva in her piece Powers of Horror, is defined as things ‘that does not respect borders, positions, rules’ it is what ‘disturbs identity, system, order’. (as cited in Creed, 2002) Barbara Creed (2002) argued that ‘Within the biblical context, the corpse is also utterly abject. It signifies one of the most basic forms of pollution – the body without a soul. As a form of waste it represents the opposite of the spiritual, the religious symbolic.’ (p. 70) Therefore, congenitally we find corpses and cadavers fearful.

Notwithstanding the fact that we find it horrifying, mankind, across societies and theistic beliefs still have a natural impulse to treat the human corpse and that of animals, distinctly. (Posel & Gupta, 2009) To have a proper treatment for a deceased human body, delivers a symbolical meaning in making sense of the discrete life that predated it and to preserve or accentuate the dignity in demise. Hence, when a human cadaver is impaired, mutilated or disposed unethically in inappropriate locations, we perceive it as an ignominious and degrading act. (Posel & Gupta, 2009)

What if the human corpse, are to be put in good use, for say, artistic purposes? Will it be in general perception, intrinsically good? This is a matter of ethical discourse. Death and decay that surround human beings, have always been a topic of fascination among visual artists. (Strong, 2015) Though interpreted and projected upon the artworks in various ways, the thematic of life and death can still be discerned for apparent reasons. Some artists have, in a radical manner, taken their artistic journey to what can sometimes be considered as “too far” by certain parties. One of these artists is of course the notorious constructive photographer, Joel-Peter Witkin whose works are central to the discourse of this essay—which is to be discussed later.

As an introductory exemplar of the usage of real cadaver for photographic purposes, I would like to excerpt an anecdote from the history of black metal music. In Norway, during 1995, a music collective labelled as ‘Mayhem’ released an album entitled ‘Dawn of the Black Hearts’. The album cover was dubbed as one of the most controversial album arts in the history of music, for the reason that it depicts the image of the band’s vocalist Per “Dead” Ohlin’s demised body post-committing suicide. (Roche, 2011) The exploitation of Ohlin’s deceased body by guitarist Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth, shifted the ‘grindcore’ designs of metal album covers to a new turning point of extremity.


                                      Cover of Dawn of the Black Hearts by Mayhem featuring the real aftermath of Ohlin’s suicide.

As I have mentioned in earlier paragraphs, mankind periodically can be in denial with the issue of death. Therefore, arts as the fount and platform of creativity is a functional medium in propagating taboo subject matters such as life and death. It is a commonality for an artist to recreate scenes and imageries of death in their works, however the acceptance of the mass towards artworks that uses real fragments of cadavers faces much controversy. The reason is because as I said beforehand, mankind have an impulse in preserving the predated life of a deceased body.

Joel-Peter Witkin was born in 1939, as an identical twin (his twin, Jerome Witkin happens to be a successful American figurative painter). He is a notorious figure in the field of modern photography due to his distinctive style in creating his pieces i.e. by self-constructing and staging of set-ups that elicits a shocking and peculiar atmosphere upon the norm. Witkin possess a unique artistic vision in finding beauty amid grotesque imagery. (Palacios, 2014)

Witkin as a young man, served in the military as a photographer, in which during his years of serving, have inaugurated his technical skills in photography. Being a military photographer, he was assigned to travel around bases in Europe under instruction to document suicides and accidents. Witkin, during an interview for a documentary entitled ‘Joel-Peter Witkin: An Objective Eye” (2013) mentioned that he witnessed an accident as a kid, in which a decapitated head rolled in front of him. This moment thenceforth, liberated him apropos to artistic views and simultaneously gave him a fresh look on the subject of death.


Still Life, Mexico (1992) photographed by Joel-Peter Witkin features a left leg of a woman that is believed to be still alive, however separated from it in a train track accident.

An interesting fact about Witkin, is that he never produces his work in any digital medium, for the authenticity of a photograph comes in the form of a film, he believes, in which he is known for using various methodologies to modify his films by-hand in order to achieve the particular look that he desires. (Palacios, 2014) However, the primary concern of this writing is not the background history of the photographer or the technical aspects of his iconic works, but this writing concerns the thematic aspect.

As I mentioned earlier, death is the subject that have been the esprit de corps of most artists or photographers in spite them being classic or contemporary. How can Joel-Peter Witkin be perceived as distinct compared to the others? Witkin’s works are correspondence to the musical band Mayhem’s extremity in spreading their vocalist’s suicide aftermath photo via album cover. He took the imagery of his photographs to an extreme level, by constructing or staging his set-ups in which he participates real cadavers or demised human remaining.

Witkin, under the supervision of a university, was granted an access to their medical faculty’s laboratory in which he obtained his cadavers to be used for artistic means. Witkin does not only centralize corpses as a subject to his photography, for he is also known for focusing on other subjects such as the classically beautiful human form, the deformed, dilapidation and also maximal eroticism. In other words, Witkin explores all aspects of the human flesh. He embraces the beauty, of every condition of the human flesh i.e. by accentuating the perfectly formed to the sublimity of the decaying human flesh. This is what makes Joel-Peter Witkin different as compared to other artists that explores the corresponding topic. (International Centre of Photography)

Since our history of art is known for its endless search and accentuation of the perfect human form, it directly becomes the reason on why Witkin’s photography, comparable to that of Francis Bacon’s painting, is shocking to the viewer’s eyes. (Telci, 2002) A person can tell a particular work belongs to Witkin by a swift glance. Witkin’s popular verve in creating studio set-ups is derived from his academic background as he was studying sculpture at Columbia University in 1974. (artnet.com)

One of the most controversial of his works are entitled The Kiss (1982) made after he moved to New Mexico. According to the documentary “Joel-Peter Witkin: An Objective Eye”, the work became so controversial, it almost resulted in discharging of a staff in a local university at that time. The Kiss (1982) is a piece that Witkin constructed, shot and printed by himself. The Kiss conveys decapitated male heads positioned vis-à-vis kissing each other in the mouth. Apparently, the head belongs to a same person that was bisected for autopsy purposes even before the day Witkin took it from the lab for the means of his artistic project.

However, this fact is not taken account of, for Witkin was accused for unethically cutting the head without the authorization of the institute. In an interview, Witkin emphasized that he would not do such a thing, for he finds it unethical as an artist to commit any alteration on the cadavers he received from the university. The fact that the university considered discharging a staff member for, in a way, letting this occasion happened, solidifies the statement I made in previous paragraphs on how humankind is impelled towards respecting demised humanflesh.


 The Kiss (1982) by Joel-Peter Witkin.

Witkin triggered discourses on the subject of death by reinterpreting and referencing classical works by artists such Goya, Balthus and Velásquez. (International Centre of Photography) He even reinterpreted Man Ray’s iconic “Le Violin” as a tribute, nonetheless Witkin’s version of portrayal comprises more violent and gore that creates some sort of reflection towards contemporary conception of beauty upon a woman. The works of Witkin compels effectively for psychoanalytical readings. (Metaxatos, 2004)

In Witkin’s MA thesis, he asserted that all the subjects he portrayed in his works are himself, in which he mentioned that he carefully discerned and choose his models with cautious in order to make them understand the visuals that he is trying to achieve are under the scrutiny of his mind apropos to his fears in depth i.e. of isolation, love and castration. (as cited in Metaxatos, 2004) It can be said that Witkin’s photographs explores his self-repression in certain ways.

Peter Schwenger, a fellow at University of Western Ontario, have made a claim that within a corpse ‘we see a subjectivity at the same time that we see an object, we see the degree to which subjectivity is the seeing of an object’. (as cited in Metaxatos, 2004) The corpse constitutes the uncanny, for it changes the image of otherness and self, paradoxically. As Despina Metaxatos (2004) asserts in her piece, ‘we are both there and not there’. (p. 29) Thereby, it is lucid why corpse is such a captivating subject for Joel-Peter Witkin. It presents death and the values concerning beauty that are attached to it, in a very intimate way.

Witkin conceded his usage of corpse’s power of symbolic, he mentioned the reason he became a photographer is because photography allow him to exert with ‘power of reality’. There is an excerpt in Metaxatos’ thesis, where Witkin asserted:

…if I show death that is because even in that condition I recognized this power of reality that no imagined work can reproduce…The Pieta or The Virgin of the Rocks, no matter how wonderful they are, are only reproductions of the human mind, while the reality of flesh, living or dead, is the creation of God.

(p. 30)

This excerpt, with lucidity, have explained in short the reason behind why the works of jeol-Peter Witkin is both powerful and controversial. The participation of real human flesh in Witkin’s photography represent death, by in a way, not representing it.


Woman Once a Bird (1990) by Joel-Peter Witkin as a tribute for Man Ray’s Le Violin.

In short, Joel-Peter Witkin is a profound photographer of the current epoch. In a way, we can see his photographs as giving a new life to something that is demised i.e. by using human remains in artistic projects so that it gives life to something new, art. Witkin not only include discourses concerning death in his works, but it is central to them. He is not only a unique constructive photographer but also a skilful printmaker. The fact that Witkin still uses negative, the intimacy between him as a photographer and his photos are conveyed in his works, it elicits a sense of authenticity.

Death is, with no doubt, one of the most powerful subjects in the history of both photography and arts. Witkin’s photograph is very successful in the elicitation of compound emotions from the viewers. His works also projects fear, however in a beautifully grotesque manner. To conclude, Witkin’s photography defies the conventional techniques, for the distinctiveness of his work is successful under the amalgamation of skilful camera techniques, printmaking, art directing, sculpting, theatrical visions with a touch of personal discernment towards subjects such as life and death.



Creed, B. (2002) Horror and the monstrous-feminine. In Mark Jancovich (Ed.), Horror, the film reader (pp. 67-76). London: Routledge.

Joel-Peter Witkin. (2016, March 02). Retrieved November 19, 2017, from https://www.icp.org/browse/archive/constituents/joel-peter-witkin?all%2Fall%2Fall%2Fall%2F0

Joel-Peter Witkin. (n.d.). Retrieved November 19, 2017, from http://www.artnet.com/artists/joel-peter-witkin/

Marino, T. (Director). (n.d.). Joel-Peter Witkin: An Objective Eye [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ro55ed2AAak

Metaxatos, D. (2004). The spiritual body: Regression and redemption in the work of Joel-Peter Witkin (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). The University of Western Australia

Palgi, P., & Abramovitch, H. (1984). Death: A cross cultural perspective. Annual Review of Anthropology, 13, 385-417.

Posel, D., & Gupta, P. (2009). The life of the corpse: Framing reflections and questions. African Studies, 68(3), 299-309.

Roche, J. (2016, May 24). The Ten Bloodiest Metal Album Covers [Gross, but not entirely NSFW]. Retrieved November 19, 2017, from http://www.laweekly.com/music/the-ten-bloodiest-metal-album-covers-gross-but-not-entirely-nsfw-2411884

Strong, R. L. (2015). The demised human form as a source of beauty and horror: The beauty of the bones (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Lesley University College of Art and Design.