Robert Mapplethorpe (1946 – 89) is one of the most renowned and prolific names in portrait and still life photography. Mapplethorpe was a good friend of Andy Warhol and Keith Haring’s in the 70s and 80s and was introduced to countless celebrities and the whose who of the underground edgy New York of the time, all of whom posed for him at one moment or another.
His main attraction though was to the body, and the shapes and shadows that could be created through poses and muscle contractions. He sought ‘perfection in form’ in all his subjects, from nudes and portraits to the inanimate flowers and architectural shots. His photographs are reminiscent of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures and follow the rules of symmetry and geometry that classical sculptors used.
Using, for the most part, his large format Hasselblad camera, Mapplethorpe spent days on end in his studio, casting people he saw on the street, as well as friends, as his subjects. His sitters were often athletic black men including models, dancers and bodybuilders, all with muscular and well-defined bodies. He chose African-American models because ‘he could extract a greater richness from the color of their skin’. Two of his most famous models are athlete and model Ken Moody and the dancer Derrick Cross. Both subjects were photographs from head to toe in all positions possible, at times the shots were full body whilst other days Mapplethorpe chose to focus on one detail, be it a hand or their calf – whichever body part that he considered the most perfect part in that particular model on that given day.
Balance and harmony are key to Mapplethorpe’s photographs. Mapplethorpe consciously composes the images to emphasize their structure and geometry. In many of his portraits and self-portraits, the sitter is shown from the front and presented in perfect symmetry. He chased after contrast in his photographs, not only in set design (by sitting black models on white marble or shooting them with a white shroud) but also in his subjects. One of his favorite pairings was to photograph Ken Moody alongside Robert Sherman, an albino body builder.
Mapplethorpe remained devoted to the minimal elegance of black-and-white photography throughout his life, using the medium in part as an agent to explore certain paradoxes and binary relationships: male vs female and good vs evil for example. He explored both of these paradoxes within his own self portraits where in 1980 he blurred his own gender identity by taking two photographs of himself – one in partial drag, with full make up and the other as a sneering, smoking biker boy in leather. He has also photographed himself wearing horns which points to Christian and Greek mythology as a nod to Satan, the Bible’s fallen angel, and Dionysus, a Greek god associated with hedonism and sexual desire.
Click here to explore the current available photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe