Icons of Photography: Robert Mapplethorpe

‘Robert Michael Mapplethorpe was born on Monday 4 November 1946. Raised in Floral Park, Long Island, the third of six children, he was a mischievous little boy whose carefree youth was delicately tinged with a fascination with beauty. His young eyes stored away each play of light . . . He contained, even at an early age, a stirring and the desire to stir.’

So wrote Patti Smith in her tender memoir, Just Kids. Who could better that description of the childhood years of Mapplethorpe, with its promises and threats of hunger, desire, talent? Smith was the first to see him for what he would become – one of the great shapers of the late 20th century’s ways of looking.

She was his bed-partner – until he discovered his homosexuality. He was her soulmate – before and after he hooked up with his rich lover and patron Sam Wagstaff, the great collector of photography whose wealth paid for Mapplethorpe’s loft studio and insulated him from the need to earn. She was the woman who renamed him, transforming him from a suburban ‘Bob’ to a Manhattan ‘Robert’.

She shared his journey through the 1970s downtown arts scene. His first public profile was as the star of the sub-Warhol art movie Robert Has His Nipple Pierced. Warhol was always his benchmark – both of artistic endeavour and, as importantly to both their eyes, of how to comport oneself as an artist.

Mapplethorpe was never less than ravenously ambitious – socially as well as artistically. In 1971, he met and was taken up by John McKendry, Curator of Prints and Photography at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. McKendry bought him a camera, took him on a European tour, introduced to the moneyed collectors who would, in time, become his portrait subjects – and buy his work.

He became a staff photographer at Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, house organ of the interface between Manhattan’s uptown wealth and downtown artistry. He did portraits of the rich – John Paul Getty III and Carolina Herrera. He did album covers for CBGB alumni – Television and, most significantly, Patti Smith.

His picture of her for the cover of her first album, Horses, gave a focused sense of what she was up to, both clarifying it and rhetoricising it – doing just you need to do if you want to be a rock and roll star. It also opened Mapplethorpe’s path into a wider, more glittered world. In 1977, he had two substantial New York shows. At one gallery, he showed pictures of flowers. At the other, naked men and sadomasochist sex.

It was Patti Smith who kept telling him to become a photographer. Or, rather, to concentrate on photography. Truth be told, he was never a photographer. He was always an artist who worked with photographs. His journey into photography began with using a Polaroid SX-70 to make collages. He didn’t really change.

His early, pre-fame work mixed images clipped from men’s magazines with rabbit’s feet, beads and the like – tiny votive altars, echoing and interrogating his Catholic upbringing. His mature work – whether of giant black penises or calla lilies or a wrist half-buried in a vagina – was always framed to his precise and considered specification. ‘I was a Catholic boy, I went to church every Sunday. A church has a certain magic and mystery for a child. It still shows in how I arrange things. It’s always little altars.’

A Mapplethorpe is not bound by its framing, but by its frame. An object, not an image. When his work was first shown in London, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, its most extreme images were housed in a separate, adults-only room – a cabinet of (extremely curious) curiosities from the world of homosexual sado-masochism, all lit with his ever-present meticulous, lush intensity. Men chained, scrotums nailed, urine drunk. A portrait of the artist himself with the handle of a bull whip introduced to his anus.

‘Robert took areas of dark human consent and made them into art,’ wrote Patti Smith. His work is quite unabashed. He is as unafraid of desire and arousal as a successful pornographer. He never apostrophises sexuality. It is real and visceral, as enticing as it is frightening. For him, sex and photography were effectively indistinguishable. ‘When I have sex with someone I forget who I am. For a minute I even forget I’m human. It’s the same thing when I’m behind a camera. I forget I exist.’

Or not. He was always one of his own favourite subjects. His self-portraits are as enigmatic as Cindy Sherman’s, though generally more interested in play than masks. At various times, he portrayed himself in evening dress as a pretend grown-up, as a woman, with a knife as a kind of Lower East Side Mercutio and, most famously, with devil horns. Patti Smith again: ‘A good boy trying to be bad.’ Yet he could also be a great collaborator.

His portrait of the ageing artist Louise Bourgeois holding a gigantic phallus is the most wonderful conspiracy of teasers. His picture of female move stars are lessons in love and wonder: Susan Sarandon naked behind a sheet, Sigourney Weaver with a cleavage as deep as the Rift Valley.

To look into a Mapplethorpe is to look into the past. Or rather, various layered pasts. There is photography’s own history – in particular, its earliest years, the pictures taken by Nadar, Julia Cameron and their like, to which Mapplethorpe’s eye was drawn by his first informal tutor, John McKendry. There are memories of Weston’s eroticised peppers, of Man Ray’s surreal dreamings, of the violent religiosity of pre-Reformation painting, of Stielglitz’s almost child-like fascination with Georgia O’Keefe’s body, of the succulent pain of Michelangelo’s dying angels, of the distant, passionate, deathly musings of Velázquez, of Outerbridge’s naked woman plus metal-spiked meat-packer gloves. ‘When I work, and in my art, I hold hands with God,’ he said.

There is a consciously archaic studio-boundness in his pictures – a world of artificial light, of placedness, of the indoors and its imaginings. There is the virtual absence of colour – that most modern of photographic choices. In its place, a Horst-like search for the perfect black. And, most obviously, there is that strangely distant past of 1970s New York gay – of closeting and shame and lust turning back on themselves into ritualistic, almost shamanistic violence and self-harm.

A time of strange innocence, too – as yet unmarked by the blind scythe of AIDS. Perhaps because of this rooting in that particular time there is no school of Mapplethorpe. An unabashed self-examiner of the extremes of desire, he sits, quite clearly, between Diane Arbus’s nervy peerings and Nan Goldin’s ironised examinations of her circle’s brutal, intimate lives. Unlike either of them, though, Mapplethorpe opens himself out, quite unafraid – or at least good at pretending to be.

Yet, while it’s easy to see and assess the artistic shadows cast by those two female photographers, Mapplethorpe stands alone – or, at most, leaving only traces in, say, Bruce Weber’s glossy blacks and lustful surfaces. There is no line of succession. He changed our ways of looking but his vision passed with him.

 He died on 9 March 1989, of an AIDS-related illness.

© Peter Silverton 2019

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