Joel-Peter Witkin was one of triplets, but his sister died before birth, leaving only two boys. The dissimilar religious backgrounds of his parents--his father was Jewish and his mother a devout Catholic--led to their divorce when Witkin and his brother were still very young. The boys were raised in a deeply religious atmosphere by their mother. Witkin's agglomeration of unusual memories from childhood--including his having seen the decapitated head of a little girl roll out from under a car after a terrible automobile accident--has played an important role in shaping his artistic vision.
Witkin obtained his first camera while still a teenager in the mid-1950s: a twin-lens reflex Rolleicord that he bought used. He read manuals and taught himself the fundamentals of the camera's use. His earliest camera assignments were unusual, consistent with the unsettling experiences Witkin recounts from his childhood. His first photograph was of a Rabbi who claimed to have spoken to God. Later he took his camera to the freak show at Coney Island at the request of his brother, who wanted the images for his paintings.
Witkin attended sculpture classes at night at the Cooper Union School of Fine Art in New York, and between 1958 and 1967 he worked for various commercial photographers, interrupted for a time by military service. Witkin had been drafted into the army, but in the hope of retaining some control over how he would be used, he enlisted for three years and worked as a combat photographer. His assignments included recording on film the bodies of soldiers who had committed suicide or died in training accidents. Witkin has said that it was not death itself that he found so disturbing but rather the human capacity for institutionalizing violence. In 1967 Witkin worked as photographer for City Walls, Inc., an organization that produced murals in the five boroughs of New York.
Witkin returned to Cooper Union after the army (B.F.A. 1974). That same year he was awarded a fellowship in poetry at Columbia University. It was during this period that Witkin began his personal exploration of Eastern religions. He traveled to India to study yoga, photographing sacred sites as a means of financing the trip. In 1975 Witkin began graduate studies in photography and art history at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque (M.A. 1976, M.F.A. 1981).
Witkin's first solo exhibition was held in 1969 at the Moore College of Art in Philadelphia. Additional one-man exhibitions of his photographs have been held at The Cooper Union School of Fine Art (1972), Projects Studio One, New York (1980), San Francisco Camerawork (1982), Kansas City Art Institute (1983), Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1983), Institute Franco-American, Paris (1985), Aspen Museum, Colorado (1985), University of New Mexico (1986), Hochschule der Künste, Berlin (1986), Museum of Fine Arts, Santa Fe (1986), Centro de Arte Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid 1988), the Berert Gallery, Rotterdam (1989), and the Palais de Tokyo, Paris (1990). In 1985 a major exhibition of Witkin's photographs was organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Columbia College, Chicago (1986), Brooklyn Museum (1986), Milwaukee Art Center (1986-1987), and La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art (1987). (Fine/Corlett 1991, 201)