Artatomical: Joel-Peter Witkin's 'Harvest'

"Harvest" by Joel-Peter Witkin Image via Draw Paint Print

The vast majority of Joel-Peter Witkin's photography exists beyond the scope of what I can share with you here. Born in 1939, the American photographer made a name for himself though the creation of dark tableaus and still lifes, often utilizing human cadavers, dismembered body parts, dwarves, hermaphrodites, transsexuals and the physically deformed.

It's work that courts controversy. Witkin was forced to pursue much of his art in Mexico, beyond the limits of U.S. law. But he's no mere provocateur. His photographs are the work of meticulous planning and, as pointed out in "Still Life: Picturing the Living/Dead" by Kayla Parker, extensive dark room manipulation.


Witkin's work ruminates on life and death, and his gelatin silver print "Harvest" (1984) is no exception.

(Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty)

The piece sharply mirrors the paintings of Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526-1593), known for his inventive portraits in which objects such as vegetables or books formed the subject's head. You'll see his famous 1563 painting "Summer" to the right.

Witkin channels Arcimboldo here, creating a head composed of not only vegetable matter, but also cadaver tissue -- most notably the face of a corpse. It serves as a stark memento mori, reminding us of the reality of death. While Arcimboldo's painting captures human life with animal life, Witkin presents us with the inexorable advance of decay.

What does it say to you?

Growing Up With Witkin

Long before I saw Witkin-inspired visuals in the 1994 Nine Inch Nails video "Closer," I ran across his photography books in various stores -- even at the mall. You might say I was a bit too young to view such images, but they had a strong effect on me even then. The images conveyed a message of sex, life, death, decay and the web connecting it all together. I'm not sure I'd take that back.

"Harvest" is currently listed a Chrstie's if you wish to buy it. And if you wish to learn more about the artist, consider seeking out the 2013 documentary "Joel-Peter Witkin: An Objective Eye."

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.