The charm of Robert Mapplethorpe is such, that he was able to captivate not only a city but become an icon of American culture. He didn’t need many words or colors to achieve that. His black and white odyssey created a revolution that changed the stigmas of the epoque.
All photographers have something in common: the love of capturing moments, people, scenes and anything that catches their sights. While it’s true that many are inspired by others, each photographer has something that makes then unique; but Mapplethorpe is a king of uniqueness.
Robert Mapplethorpe was born on November 4, 1946 in Floral Park, New York to a family of strict catholic environment. In 1962, at 16, he left his home and enrolled at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 1963, studying painting, drawing and sculpting. His first experiments with photography were in 1970, although his original intention was not to be a photographer. He bought a Polaroid camera to take photos for his collages (which were previously assemblages he did with images from pornographic magazines and paintings), but it didn’t take him long to appreciate the quality of those pictures. By 1973, he held his first solo exhibition in New York, under the name of “Polaroids”.
“I like to look at pictures, all kinds. And all those things you absorb come out subconsciously one way or another. You’ll be taking photographs and suddenly know that you have resources from having looked at a lot of them before. There is no way you can avoid this. But this kind of subconscious influence is good, and it certainly can work for one. In fact, the more pictures you see, the better you are as a photographer.”
It was during this period of time that he met the artist, poet and musician Patti Smith, who would be his muse for countless photographs and projects, as well as one of his partners. This unusual couple started to frequent the underground bars of the time, where the 70’s bustling artistic scene of New York city began to be forged. That’s where Robert enters the avant-garde worlds, and ends up photographing the most visible faces of the scene like Debbie Harry, Grace Jones and Andy Warhol. But, more than in the portraits of celebrities, it was with the exploration of the beauty of the human body and botany where his greatest fortress is located.
When he launched into the sexual theme, the entire city seemed obsessed with sex in one way or another. All photographers, writers, poets; all dealt with sexual issues. However, Robert chose the sadomasochistic subject, a world he began to know and photograph, and which went much further than what was usual at the time. His work was considered as shocking. No one, besides him, had focused on the darkness of the underground gay scene in New York.
Those first images would project his future greatness. He deliberately treats homoeroticism -and even sadomasochism- as art, through beautiful compositions reminiscent of classical sculpture, especially that of the Greek world. It is his particular use of light, achieving black and white images, that bring his photographs to the sublime.
“When I work, and in my art, I hold hands with God.”
During that stage of explicit sex, he photographed the most scandalized practices in the foreground. A repertoire whose only objective seemed to seek provocation, but that was alternated with beautiful pictures of flowers, which mirrored the same sensuality of his nude portraits. He was a participant in the Downtown Gay Bondage Scene of New York, and as such, he felt that he had to archive life as it was occurring before him. In 1988 he told ARTnews “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.”
His second “obsession” was with black men. “I often say that photographing black men is like photographing bronze.” This is clearly perceived when those photographs are observed. It shows a very thorough technique, an obsession with symmetry and a taste of a Greco-Roman cut for the human body. However, from typical moralist perspectives, he was accused of exploiting African Americans. Mapplethorpe had to defend himself explaining that he only photographed what he liked, and the people he liked to be with. That there was no more secret than that.
“…My whole point is to transcend the subject. …Go beyond the subject somehow, so that the composition, the lighting, all around, reaches a certain point of perfection. That’s what I’m doing. Whether it’s a cock or a flower, I’m looking at it in the same way. …in my own way, with my own eyes.”
In spite of everything, Mapplethorpe was much more than his rebellion and controversies. During his career he photographed many children, and even received commissions to photograph them. These works were the total opposite to his adult portraits: he emphasized innocence, their playfulness and their lack of self-consciousness. “You can’t control them. They never do what you want them to do.”
He also experimented with a very complex photography subject, self-portraits. In them, he showed the very different aspects of his personality, showing himself in different ranges, from “bad boy” to a travesty. In 1986, he was diagnosed with AIDS, and it is believed that for this reason, he accelerated the pace at which he took ambitious projects. His most powerful self-portrait is probably that of 1988, the same year of his first major exhibition at The Whitney Museum of American Art.
“The photographs that are art have to be separated from the rest – then preserved.”
In this haunting self-portrait, he shows his gaunt face peering from a completely black background, as if it was floating in space. He seems to be looking at death in the face, and the disembodied head portrays his gradual fading away. The skull cane and the slight out-of-focus of his head give a clear signal of what he was trying to show. Although somber, he seems fearless and accepting of his future.
He died on March 9, 1989 in Boston.