Books | Robert Mapplethorpe: The Photographs
Photo: Robert Mapplethorpe American, 1946–1989. Identical self-portaits of Robert Mapplethorpe with trip cable in hand, 1974. Gelatin silver print Sheet (each): 9.3 x 11.6 cm (3 11/16 x 4 9/16 in.). Gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Held at the Getty Research Institute, 2011.M.20.24
“I went into photography because it seemed like the perfect vehicle for commenting on the madness of today’s existence,” Robert Mapplethorpe said, becoming himself one of the greatest and most controversial figures to ever master the form. Best known for his classical black and white portraits, nudes, and flowers produced in the 1970s and ‘80s, Mapplethrope rose to critical and commercial success before becoming a lightening rod for controversy and censorship in 1989, the year of his death.
Three decades later, his legacy endures, continuing to provoke, trigger, alarm, and disturb. “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,” he observed, creating a body of work that is as complex and compelling as it is polarizing and provocative.
A new monograph, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Photographs by Paul Martineau and Britt Salvesen (J. Paul Getty Museum), provides a comprehensive introduction to the artist’s career and legacy, presenting a over 240 photographs from his archive. Included here are some of his best-known works, as well as a selection which have rarely been published or exhibited before.
As the authors reveal, “One of the strongest motivations in Mapplethorpe’s life was his desire for fame. as a visual artist, he understood the importance of creating a dynamic public identity and purposefully adjusted his image to suit his needs.”
In 1966, he became fascinated with Andy Warhol, taking him as an artistic role model. A year later he met artist-poet and musician Patti Smith, and together they came to symbolize the cultural revolution sweeping across New York City. Moving from the outside of the fringes into the very heart of the art world, Mapplethorpe used his photographs to change our way of seeing an underground world that was coming to light: the gay BDSM scene in the years before and during the outbreak of AIDS.
Mapplethorpe’s observation, “Beauty and the devil are the same thing,” speaks to a conflict that lay very close to his heart. To perceive a sense of evil in the beautiful is subvert the delusion that often bewitches our minds, the assumption that beauty is goodness—or even salvation. For Mapplethorpe, it was just the opposite. Beauty had to be served, even if the cost of doing business was his own life.
Robert Mapplethorpe: The Photographs is a tremendous study of the artist’s legacy, providing personal, professional, political, and aesthetic frames by which to consider his work. As straightforward as his photographs are, the depth of the work is astounding, revealing the multitude of layers that exist beneath the surface.
All photos: © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.