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Robert Mapplethorpe: Influential and Contraversial 20th Century Photographer Artist

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Mention the name Robert Mapplethorpe and people will automatically think of controversy and homo-erotic photography but the works of Mapplethorpe are much more than that.

Robert Mapplethorpe was born on Nov. 4, 1946 in Floral Park, Queens, New York. Mapplethorpe himself had said, “it was a good place to come from in that it was a good place to leave." And he leave he did.

In 1963 he moved to nearby Brooklyn and enrolled in the Pratt Institute where he studied drawing, painting and sculpture. He also experimented in mixed media collages and used images cut from books and magazines. He did not, however, study photography.

In 1970 two significant, but seemingly mundane things happened in Mapplethorpe’s life that would completely shape his future. Firstly, he acquired a Polaroid camera and secondly, he moved into a tiny Chelsea apartment with a young girl he met by accident in 1967. That girl was none other than Patti Smith. Smith met Mapplethorpe when she went to New York to visit friends. When she arrived she found they had moved and asleep on the floor wrapped up in blanket was Mapplethorpe. She later described him as the most beautiful young man she had ever seen.

In 1975 he acquired a Hasselbrad medium-format camera and began shooting his circle of friends and acquaintances—artists, musicians, socialites, pornographic film stars, and members of the S & M underground. He also worked on commercial projects, creating album cover art for Patti Smith and television and a series of portraits and party pictures for Interview Magazine, according to the Mapplethorpe Foundation.

Patti Smith

Patti Smith

Polaroids as Fine Art

Mapplethorpe enjoyed taking photographs with the Polaroid and found them valuable in their own right and started adding them to his mixed media collages. The Light Gallery in New York City mounted his first solo gallery exhibition, “Polaroid’s” in 1973. Between 1970 and 1975 Mapplethorpe made more than 1,500 Polaroid images. They include portraits, still lifes and erotic images which incorporated themes that can also be found in his later works. In 2008, the Whitney Museum exhibited 100 Mapplethorpe Polaroid’s.

Sylvia Wolf, the show’s curator wrote in the catalog that Mapplethorpe “learned how to see photographically with the Polaroid camera.” During this time Mapplethorpe was growing as an artist and starting to explore his own sexuality.

Mapplethorpe no longer had to leaf through pornographic magazines to find the perfect image for his mixed media works. He could simply photograph himself in the exact erotic pose he needed to convey his message. There are also numerous images of Smith.

Although the themes of the Polaroid’s are the same as his mature works, the images themselves are different. The Polaroid’s are more seamy and spontaneous, but the love of the human form is there. The Polaroid’s are raw, real and “off the moment.” His later works are more posed, carefully crafted, thought out and the human form takes on perfect, Renaissance statue qualities.

Fascination with Fetish

Mapplethorpe’s fascination with photographing the New York Sadistic-Masochism scene peaked in late 1970s. These photographs have gained notoriety for their shocking content; however they illustrate Mapplethorpe’s formal and technical mastery of photography.

It was also his images of gay male sexual practice, though not graphic in the examples I have found that caused quite an uproar among “polite” society. In fact many of those images where omitted from the Whitney exhibit. Of course these types of images had already been available in various seedier publications. But where they art? Many critics and detractors certainly thought they were not. There was public outcry and anger that the National Endowment for the Arts would use precious taxpayer dollars on this “filth.”

Mapplethorpe told ARTnews in late 1988, "I don't like that particular word 'shocking.' I'm looking for the unexpected. I'm looking for things I've never seen before … I was in a position to take those pictures. I felt an obligation to do them."

Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter 1979

Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter 1979

Censorship and the Creative Process

It was Mapplethorpe’s 1990 exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati that created the “censorship battle that changed the world.” According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, Dennis Barrie and the Contemporary Arts Center were indicted for pandering obscenity hours after the opening of the photography exhibit, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment in 1980. In question were seven portraits, mostly of sadomasochistic acts, which were also the subject of the Showtime Original movie, “Dirty Pictures.” This was also happening at the same time Pres. Ronald Reagan was trying the repeal the National Endowment for the Arts Act. A six month court battle raged on with Barrie and the arts center finally being acquitted of obscenity charges but the public debate continued for a decade. I think people inherently believe certain types of images available in skin magazines are not meant for public, but private consumption. They are also not considered art as they arouse sexual feelings in some or even most viewers. When similar images were displayed in a “public” place like a museum or art gallery it makes people uncomfortable and they then declare it’s not art but pornography because they don’t like it or it makes them uncomfortable. The technical and formal mastery of the image is no longer taken into consideration. It simply becomes obscene, filthy, unsettling, inappropriate and must be immediately censored and the perpetrators punished. Of course, you, I, your friends, neighbors, school teachers, policemen, soldiers, sons and daughters would never look at, let alone purchase, such materials. Right? That’s for deviants and sexual perverts.

Mapplethorpe was much more

Of course, when discussing Mapplethorpe everyone immediately thinks of his more controversial works, however, they are just a part of the total scope of his work. His images of both male and female nudes are reminiscent of Michelangelo’s depiction of the human form in perfect proportion.

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Mapplethorpe had numerous beautiful friends, both male and female that exemplified the human ideal so much so that they are being exhibited in Florence alongside the great works of Michelangelo. Mapplethorpe photographed people who looked like statues. He was also interested in statuary and took many beautiful black and white images of statues.

I admire and am inspired by Mapplethorpe’s work because he had a different view of beauty.

Lady Lyon

Lady Lyon

Beauty and Brawn

Mapplethorpe was able to both challenge and honor the classical aesthetic standards in his stylized compositions of male and female nudes, delicate flower still lifes, and studio portraits of artists and celebrities, which were just a few of his preferred genres. In the 1980s he met Lisa Lyon the first World’s Women Body Building Champion. They collaborated for many years on various studio projects to include a film and the book, Lady, Lisa Lyon . Lyon has described herself as animal. Female strength, charm and muscle suppleness, is both beautiful and empowering. The belief that muscle strength and its inherent beauty is solely for the realm of the male sex is false conception that only exists in people's limited understanding. Who better than Mapplethorpe to capture her beauty, strength and animalistic drive and power?

Interestingly he photographed her portrait as a sharp profile with the lighting accenting the muscles in her arms and the strength and determination on her face although somewhat softened by the hat and mourning veil she wears. Most of Mapplethorpe’s portraiture is stark, high contrast, and evocative.

Almost more than that image with its mix of femininity (the hat and corset) and masculinity (muscles), I prefer the androgynous image of Lisa Lyon and the snake. She stands in a doorway completely nude wrapped in a huge python. Only Lyon and the snake are lit. Her legs and feet are planted in a wide stance showing strength. The snake covers all the “naughty” bits except for one bare breast and her hair is slicked back and down. She looks manly, beautiful, strong and undeniably female all at once

A good example of his use of light and contrast is the portrait of Ken Moody and Robert Sherman dated 1984. This example of two men in love, one black and one white, both with their heads shaved, look like they were carved from marble. His nude, Ajito, depicts a perfectly muscled black man on a pedestal, knees drawn up to his chest, his arms wrapped around his legs and his head down. He shines like polished obsidian, and despite his obvious physical strength, looks very vulnerable.



Polaroids and Still Lifes as Learning tools

Although Mapplethorpe had moved on to professional cameras, he still used his Polaroid for experimenting and getting the light right before taking the final portrait or nude. In an interview in 2008 he explained his growth as an artist and his use of Polaroids, “When I first started taking Polaroids I was working with photographs that dealt with sexuality, portraits, at the time it was Patti Smith because we were living together . . . and still lifes. I used still lifes to experiment with lighting. I didn’t know anything about the technology so I would take certain chances with the still lifes that couldn’t do with the person because, I think again, it’s about being sensitive to the person. I don’t what to make someone go through something unnecessarily.”

Even his still life images of flowers have a subtle sexual nature to them. Jack in the Pulpit looks very phallic, but also beautiful. The light shines through the veins and the greenish-yellow plant pops against the red background. I have noticed in most of his images with the exception of few profiles he takes them from a dead-on angle. I feel this contributes to both the beauty and the stark reality, and in many cases, raw sexuality of his images.

He uses a very formal square format in which the flowers fill the space. While the majority of his other works are in black and white, many of his flowers are in color. Beautiful vibrant color.


The Mapplethorpe Foundation

Mapplethorpe was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986. Despite, or perhaps in spite of, he pushed himself even more and took on more challenging commissions. One year prior to his death in 1989, Whitney Museum of American Art mounted his first major American museum retrospective.

Mapplethorpe created the Mapplethorpe Foundation in 1988 to promote photography, support museums that exhibit photographic art, and to fund medical research in the fight against AIDS and HIV-related infection. His legacy lives on in his vast body of work. He can be found in galleries and major museums around the world. He is considered one of the most important artists of the 20th century.

Self Portrait 1988- one year prior to his death

Self Portrait 1988- one year prior to his death


TheMXProject on August 16, 2015:

Such a good analysis of Mapplethorpe's works! Can we re-post this essay in our blog ( Email us at if it's okay.


Tess45 (author) from South Carolina on July 10, 2011:

Witty, yes. That is a good example. I believe he had an open and loving heart.

Hayley LaGarce from Kansas City, MO on July 08, 2011:

Very informative! I knew a little about his work previously but this was very in depth. In a presentation from a fellow student she mentioned the idea that he used nudity to display his opinions on power and racism. She cited the photo Man in Polyester Suit.

Tess45 (author) from South Carolina on May 06, 2011:

I only knew of the contraversy when I started looking into him and now, I'm hooked! I want learn more. Thanks for the comment adn support.

DIYweddingplanner from South Carolina, USA on May 06, 2011:

Really great article about an artist I knew little about, Tess!

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