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Robert Mapplethorpe Photo

Robert Mapplethorpe

American Photographer

Born: November 4, 1946 - Floral Park, New York
Died: March 9, 1989 - Boston, Massachusetts
"I'm looking for perfections in form. I do that with portraits. I do it with cocks. I do it with flowers. It's not different from one subject to the next. I am trying to capture what could be sculpture."
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Robert Mapplethorpe Signature
"I had the idea of taking sexual images and doing it a little differently than it had been done before - having a formalist approach to it all."
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"They are New York flowers, somehow. But again, I think they're mine. Nobody else can photograph flowers the way I do."
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"I don't like that particular word, 'shocking'. I'm looking for the unexpected. I'm looking for things I've never seen before.."
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"I see things like they've never been seen before. Art is an accurate statement of the time in which it is made."
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"To have something that's beautiful somehow gives me a feeling that approaches immortality. It's very similar to the act of creating."
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"The whole point of being an artist is to learn about yourself. The photographs, I think are less important than the life that one is leading."
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"I think the way I arrange things is very Catholic .. When I put something together it was symmetrical."
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"It was a feeling I could get through looking at pornographic imagery that I thought had never been apparent in art. If could get that across, then .. I would be doing something that was uniquely my own."
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"I want the person to look at least as interesting as they can look.. I try to catch something unique in him that no one else has. That quality is what I want to come across, not the superficial prettiness, even though I love photographing beautiful people."
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Summary of Robert Mapplethorpe

There are few photographers who have sparked national debate around artistic freedom and eroticism as profoundly as Robert Mapplethorpe. Although championed for his erotic black and white photography of fetish and leather gay imagery in New York City, his artistic accomplishments range across many media. He is best known as a photographer and his subjects consisted of sculptural nudes, erotic S&M imagery, homoerotic themes, flowers, and portraits of celebrities. His formalist approach to photography allowed the artist to approach subjects primarily through beauty and composition, and secondarily through content. It is easy to find the documentary value of his work, however it is the plight for artistic expression of which he was most concerned, consistently searching for new levels of self-expression. His work continues to be considered taboo by many, yet he remains to be one of the most revered American photographers.


  • Mapplethorpe was interested in universal values like symmetry and beauty, and approached all of his subjects with the same discerning eye through sublime composition, use of color contrasts, and cinematic lighting. He is considered a formalist for his sculptural use of photography and often listed Michelangelo as a primary influence.
  • For him, photography was a means to an end in a search for original self-expression. His utilitarian use of the medium resulted in a revolution for art photography. During Mapplethorpe's lifetime, photography wasn't a respected means of art making as it is today. He was able to bring photography into major museums during the course of his career, most notably one of his final shows at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1989, and many museums posthumously.
  • Some of his work was considered too edgy, on the verge of being pornographic or racist. Specifically, his work from the early 1980s, which featured graphic depictions of homoerotic or S&M based imagery, and his fascination with black nude male bodies. This work was not made with the intent of having political or ideological framework, rather he simply photographed what he thought was beautiful and otherwise treated all subjects with the same treatment, whether they were penises or flowers.
  • Mapplethorpe will be remembered historically as a traditional black and white photographer, but he also worked in sculpture, combines, films, and was hired to photograph celebrities for magazines. It is now considered common for artists to dabble across mediums and find one that best suits their message. For Mapplethorpe, photography was an immediate means to producing a sculptural work. He often said that he would work in marble if it weren't so time consuming.
  • Mapplethorpe's tragic end enacts the allegory of artist as cultural hero. He is remembered as one of the first celebrity victims of AIDS, and because of this, his legacy is often used to symbolize the struggle for gay liberation.

Biography of Robert Mapplethorpe

Robert Mapplethorpe Photo

Born in 1946, Robert Mapplethorpe was the third of six children. His father, Harry, worked as an electrical engineer while his mother, Joan, stayed at home raising their six children. Mapplethorpe grew up in a conservative Catholic household nestled in the quiet Queen's suburb of Floral Park. Mapplethorpe described his hometown as too safe to stay, "I come from suburban America. It was a very safe environment, and it was a good place to come from in that it was a good place to leave." The Mapplethorpe family attended Mass every Sunday and Robert served as an altar boy and occasionally made art for their family priest. His father, an amateur photographer himself, had a dark room in his basement. However, Mapplethorpe did not show an early interest in photography.

Important Art by Robert Mapplethorpe

Progression of Art

Untitled (Blue Underwear)

This early work explores Mapplethorpe's interest in the use of sexualized, readymade objects that are the precursor to his career in photography. This sculpture is one of the only surviving artworks from his first exhibition outside of school in 1970 titled Clothing as Art at the Chelsea Hotel. The artist created a sculpture consisting of two simple items: a wood frame conventionally used to stretch canvas, and a personal pair of simple blue briefs. The briefs are pulled inside out exposing the stitch work as well as exposing the most intimate section of the garment toward the viewer.

Fashion and style were closely linked to personal identity for Mapplethorpe, and stretching this sexualized garment to the point of strain on the fibers offers a look into the idea of clothing as access to hidden desires for the artist. Instead of using a frame traditionally used to mount and stage a canvas, Mapplethorpe intentionally exposes the frame as a part of the artwork. This is crucial to the piece, for he is referencing the act of art making by leaving the wood exposed while at the same time elevating a personal item into a public readymade intended for an art audience. Mapplethorpe understood that clothing is used to mark sexual identity and independence, and he used art to provide a context for erotic display.

Untitled declared Mapplethorpe's artistic thinking as an emerging artist and pointed to his future artistic style. The assemblage is one of Mapplethorpe's earliest surviving works and he created several similar works of briefs stretched to wood frames. His interest in the heightening of quotidian items into art objects gives reference to his influences of Dada, Pop art, and Andy Warhol; and his knowledge of assemblage artists like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Yet, his theme of using the frame to create a visually enticing object remains unique to Mapplethorpe's claim to artistic innovation.

Fabric, Wood, Paint - J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angles County, Los Angeles


Leatherman #1

Leatherman #1 is a mixed media piece that features a half-tone print of a man in a leather jacket and underwear holding a bullwhip - the print is actually a clipping from a pornographic magazine. The clipping is overlaid with plastic mesh giving the illusion of Ben-Day dots, which is a process used in screen printing. The background of the image is colored-in red and situated asymmetrically against blue and white velvet flocked damask wallpaper within a handmade shadow box frame. A small metal five-pointed star is glued on the image. The centerpiece was taken directly from and inspired by his interest in homoerotic "physique" magazines, which were an antecedent to more hard-core types of pornography (prior to the mid-1960's publications were prohibited from printing full frontal male nudity in the United States). The style of Leatherman #1 references the Pop art movement with bright colors, the illusion of screen printing, and the found photo as the key subject in this piece. The juxtaposition of the sexualized gay man in leather against the pastel-colored, floral motif emit synchronized feelings of pain and pleasure.

Though largely overlooked, his early works are important to understanding Mapplethorpe's formative years. Leatherman #1 shows Mapplethorpe exploring his artistic and sexual individuality through a play on cultural norms and visual cues. Whereas Pop art often used celebrities as their subjects, Mapplethorpe has chosen to mock the mainstream art establishment, because blatant sexuality, gay rights, and even photography were marginalized at the time. This work was created within the year after the famous Stonewall riots, which were a series of violent demonstrations that fought against gay oppression and police brutality. At the time, the need for an individual voice through art seemed even more urgent in conjunction with a gay male voice.

Mixed Media - J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angles


Self Portrait

Self-Portrait is a black and white photograph of a young Mapplethorpe posed shirtless against a white background. Donning a boyishly playful smile with an arm outstretched across the background wall, his body remains mostly out of frame. The arrangement of his arm and relaxed hand hold a subtle resemblance to a crucifixion and might hint at his interest in spirituality. Self-Portrait marks Mapplethorpe's transition from collage, mixed media, and assemblage to focusing exclusively on photography. This photograph is also the beginning of Mapplethorpe's dedication to self-portraiture as a central theme in his work. He would go on to create a wide variety of self-portraiture exploring the interconnections of spirituality, nudity, and eroticism.

This is a rare image of Mapplethorpe for he depicts himself as an innocent, happy young man; his curiosity is distinct from any image seen in his subsequent portfolios. He had many different personas that he captured on film, which range from blatantly pornographic, to serious and stern with little human emotion or expression. This photograph is amateur in comparison to his later work, before he refined his studio techniques. Mapplethorpe's studio photography legacy as it stands today is akin to that of Richard Avedon and Irving Penn with the utmost care and attention paid to bringing the essence of the subject on to film through manipulation of light and shadow. This portrait from 1975 shows the artist coming into his own and becoming self-aware as studio photographer, artist, subject, and sexual object.

In the canonical text Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes writes about this photograph and the relation it holds to erotic photography generally. He states, "The erotic photograph...does not make the sexual organs into a central object; it may very well not show them at all; it takes the spectator outside its frame, and it is there that I animate this photograph and that animates me." Of Self-Portrait specifically, Barthes continues, "This boy...incarnates a kind of blissful eroticism; the photograph leads me to distinguish the 'heavy' desire of pornography from the 'light' (good) desire of eroticism; afterall, perhaps this is a question of 'luck': the photographer has caught the boy's hand (the boy is Mapplethorpe himself, I believe) at just the right degree of openness, the right density of abandonment: a few millimeters more or less and the divined body would no longer have been offered with benevolence (the pornographic body shows itself, it does not give itself, there is no generosity in it): the photographer has found the right moment, the kairos of desire."

Photograph on paper, dry mounted on board - Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, New York


Mark Stevens (Mr. 10 ½)

Mark Stevens (Mr. 10 ½) portrays a well-endowed male figure, the gay porn star Mark Stevens, outfitted in black leather chaps. Stevens requested to remain anonymous, and in all of Mapplethorpe's photographs of this subject, his body is carefully cropped at the torso. His body is exerted over the tall granite podium, his chest and arms flexed tight to balance his upper body. At the center of the photograph lays his penis directly on the podium, a passive and decorative art object. Mapplethorpe showcases his attraction to men through capturing the definition seen in the subject's sculpted muscles down to the veins of his penis. Steven's penis becomes a human sculpture elevated atop the pedestal, drawing attention to the sculptural elements of the human body and likening them to the level of art. Here Mapplethorpe reimagines the sculptural object as a human body part. More specifically, the artist is making a statement by elevating the gay male body to that of classical sculpture and allegory by balancing provocation and aesthetic desire.

Mark Stevens (Mr. 10 ½) purely represents the style and imagery Mapplethorpe became (in)famous for at the height of his career: homoerotic and sexually charged black and white photography. Mapplethorpe defended his controversial photos like Mark Stevens by neutralizing the sexual tension in his photographs by using classic photographic techniques. Mapplethorpe exemplifies this by stating, "Everyone is in one way or another involved in sexuality... if you believe sex is dirty, then everybody has a dirty mind. But I never considered sex to be dirty." Despite this opinion, the photo was one of the photographs raised by Senator Jesse Helms in 1989 to restrict the content of federally funded art.

Gelatin silver print - J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles


Jim and Tom, Sausalito

This photograph is a documentation of a consensual sex act between Mapplethorpe's friends Jim and Tom and is part of the X Portfolio. Jim is shirtless wearing a fetish hood, leather pants, and boots, he stands holding his penis in a gloved hand urinating directly into the mouth of Tom, who is kneeling on the ground with his mouth agape and his hands on his thighs. This image was taken in an abandoned military bunker in San Francisco in front of a rough graffiti wall, with light coming from above which creates a dramatic shadow in the center of the image. The bodies are connected through the stream of urine highlighted by the slice of light. This is a staged act; light and shadow are controlled as well as the subject of the image very clearly orchestrated.

This shows a high level of trust between the partners, as well trust in the photographer. The level of intimacy evoked makes this different from other photographers shooting oddities or fringes of society like Diane Arbus, where the images are exploitative and feel like a betrayal of trust between artist and subject. Mapplethorpe was very clear that he was not a voyeur, as he often said, he "recorded it from the inside." Although this is an insider perspective, he always removed his subjects from their original environment. He photographs life outside of where life happens by decontextualizing the object or person in the photographic studio - thus lending the viewer a disembodied look at the subject. "Life is more interesting without a camera. I take pictures and it adds to my life. If I had a choice of photographing the party or going to the party, I'd certainly go to the party."

This image is one of seven photographs used in the 1990 censorship trail in Cincinnati, and was a popular target for critics of contemporary art. He said of this series, "I wanted people to see that even those extremes could be made into art. Take those pornographic images and make them somehow transcend the image."

Selenium toned gelatin silver print, Jointly acquired by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles - County Museum of Art; partial gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation


Patti Smith

In a typical household setting, young Patti Smith ceremoniously cuts her hair. She stands facing the camera staring directly into the lens; uninhibited by the camera's gaze. The cat perched next to Smith channels her grimaced, unbroken stare. Just as much as the camera follows Smith, she gazes back. Mapplethorpe captures Smith's essence, unrestrained, confident, and indifferent even during a seemingly impromptu occasion. True to his style, he represents Smith directly, but with a unique and different approach to intimacy than seen in his homoerotic photos. The scene isn't a bedroom or glossy black background, but a simple home setting with a housecat. She was Mapplethorpe's long-time friend and lover, and they spent many years living together during the early part of their careers. Smith acknowledges her defiance to convention by this act -she without precision cuts her hair into a less feminine coif. Smith says she didn't "want to walk around New York looking like a folk-singer. I like rock 'n' roll. So I got hundreds of pictures of Keith Richards, and I hung them up and then just took scissors and chopped away until I had a real Rolling Stones haircut." This photograph is a visual ballad to the connection they shared in a close space for many years during their formative period.

Gelatin Silver Print - Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angles


Lisa Lyon

Lisa Lyon is a testament of Mapplethorpe's commitment to formalism, in both male and female form, punctuated at the latter part of his career. The composition demonstrates his mastery of lighting, careful staging, and ornamentation to create a mysterious portrait of Lyon. Mapplethorpe often cropped his subjects at the torso, or obscured the identity to bring attention to the physical attributes of the subject, all while protecting their privacy. In this portrait, Lyon has a dramatic white curtain draped over her head to conceal her feminine beauty and in contrast she stands confident with her arms up flexing her biceps. In this opposition, she is allowing the viewer to objectify her without having the option to gaze back. The contrapposto masculine pose evokes the historical interconnection between classical Greek sensuality and stylization of nature.

Lisa Lyon met Mapplethorpe in 1980 and they collaborated on many photography projects including a film as well as a book titled, Lady, Lisa Lyon (1983). For Mapplethorpe, Lyon blurred the line between male and female with her strong female form, "When I first saw her undraped it was hard to believe that this fine girl should have this form." Lyon was the first World Women's Bodybuilding champion, and although her physique is tame for contemporary standards due to growth hormones and testosterone used in the sport, at the time her androgynous body defied popular conceptions of femininity. Not only did Lyon appeal to Mapplethorpe's love of sculptural bodies, she challenged cultural visual standards, which allowed the artist to explore gender lines that encouraged the enigmatic interplay between gender and disguise. Mapplethorpe loved the interplay of classic feminine beauty and masculine strength and she became one of his most important muses.

Medium gelatin silver print


Ken Moody and Robert Sherman

This portrait portrays two of Mapplethorpe's friends - a black man, Ken Moody, and a white man, Robert Sherman. Sherman reaches his head over Moody's shoulder, as both men face directly to the left side of the frame. Directional lighting captures subtle undulating forms found on the individuals' skin.

Mapplethorpe never worked in documentary style and instead always insisted on the importance of the camera and studio to sculpt light and form. The models tried several positions and eventually settled on Sherman's longer neck reaching over Moody, that is to say that the posing of the two is not attempting to make a social statement of a plight about race, although many have read into the image as such. Both Sherman and Moody had lost all of their hair at a young age, and Mapplethorpe brought them together through their similar attributes, and for their striking contrasting skin tones which are on opposite sides of the spectrum. This is the key element of this photograph. Moody's black skin would fade into the background had it not been for the subtle gradation of greys on the backdrop through Mapplethorpe's mastery of lighting. Furthermore, the use of black and white photography as medium is exaggerated in this photograph, which allows the artist to explore these binary relationships. The figures represent human forms in an unequivocally sculptural manner, and the artist had once stated, "If I had been born one or two hundred years ago, I might have been a sculptor, but photography is a very quick way to see, to make sculpture."

Gelatin silver print - The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York


Calla Lilly

The subtle gradation of light in this photograph exhibits the well-defined lines and the natural shape of the lily. The flower dominates the picture plane and the highly-detailed platinum print creates a stark contrast by portraying the extreme white against the extreme black with subtle gradations of grey tone found on the pedal and the pistil. Mapplethorpe often explored this use of gradation, even in his portraits. The flower "portraits" make it completely clear that Mapplethorpe was an accomplished studio photographer, no matter what the subject.

Calla Lily, depicts two of Mapplethorpe's most famous motifs: timeless black and white photography and floral still lifes. His floral still lifes were some of the few photographic projects he shared with this family. He sought to become a formal master whether approaching homosexual themes, nudity, portraiture, sadomasochism, or floral still lifes. "Taking pictures of sex is no different than photographing a flower, really... It's just submitting to whatever is going on and trying to get the best possible view of it." His second portfolio, entitled Y, displays his floral still lifes and was published between his X Portfolio of homosexual S&M and the Z Portfolio of black men. Although he treated all his subjects the same way artistically, to put the flower photographs into context of his entire oeuvre, it is hard to ignore the phallic shape and the overall sexual nature of flowers. Still lifes were also a major part of his twenty-five year retrospective exhibition, The Perfect Moment.

Platinum Print - The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York


Andy Warhol

Here Warhol's bust is centered in a soft white circle around his head (acting as a halo) placed within an opaque black square frame. Warhol wears his trademark black turtleneck and blank stare. The cruciform shape frame recalls Mapplethorpe's reoccurring Catholic motifs and the Catholic background both he and Warhol shared. The frame and haloed light is to suggest the god-like status Warhol has found through fame.

Mapplethorpe admired Warhol as a teenager and after he moved to New York Mapplethorpe soon competed with Warhol to take celebrity portraits. Both Mapplethorpe and Warhol came from middle-class, suburban backgrounds, attended school for graphic design and advertising, and both wanted to become famous - not just successful. Andy Warhol is one of numerous portraits they took of one another. However, their portraits were wrought with underlying artistic competition and distrust. Until Mapplethorpe began dating Wagstaff, Warhol thought of Mapplethorpe as suspect. Both artists were afraid the other might steal their ideas and the limelight. Here, Mapplethorpe photographed Warhol in a more or less positive perspective, while on another occasion, Warhol photographed Mapplethorpe in deep red, owing perhaps to his relentless distrust of Mapplethorpe.

Gelatin Silver Print - The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, New York

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"Robert Mapplethorpe Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 02 Nov 2016. Updated and modified regularly
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