He worked as a war photographer between 1961 and 1964 during the Vietnam war. In 1967, he decided to work as a freelance photographer and became City Walls Inc. official photographer. Later, he attended Cooper Union in New York where he... [more]
He worked as a war photographer between 1961 and 1964 during the Vietnam war. In 1967, he decided to work as a freelance photographer and became City Walls Inc. official photographer. Later, he attended Cooper Union in New York where he studied sculpture and became Bachelor of Arts in 1974. After the Columbia University granted him a scholarship, he ended his studies at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where he became Master of Fine Arts.
Witkin 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 also claims that the difficulties in his family were an influence for his work too. His favourite artist is Giotto, but the most obvious artistic influences on his work are Surrealism (particularly Max Ernst) and Baroque art. His photographic techniques draw on early Daguerreotypes and on the work of E. J. Bellocq.
His work often deals with such themes as death, corpses (or pieces of them), and various outsiders such as dwarfs, transsexuals, hermaphrodites, and physically deformed people. Some of his works, namely those with corpses in them, have had to been created in Mexico in order to get around restrictive US laws. His complex tableaux often recall religious episodes or famous classical paintings. Because of the transgressive nature of the contents of his pictures, his works have been labeled exploitative and have sometimes shocked public opinion. His art was often marginalized because of this challenging aspect.
He employs a highly intuitive approach to the physical process of making the photograph, including scratching the negative, bleaching or toning the print, and an actual hands-in-the-chemicals printing technique. This experimentation began after seeing a 19th-century ambrotype of a woman and her ex-lover who had been scratched from the frame.