I can clearly recall the day in 1975 that I stood thumbing through the new arrivals at my favorite record store, The Plastic Waffle Shop in Gainesville, Florida. The cover portrait on Patti Smith’s debut album, “Horses”, had captivated me. I’d never heard of her, but I bought the album because of that cover photo. So began my ongoing “fan” status of both Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. As it turned out, in the two decades that spanned his work, Mapplethorpe’s portraits of his close friend Smith are exceeded only in number by his self-portraits.
Enrolling at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 1963, Mapplethorpe received training in painting, drawing and sculpture. In 1970, Mapplethorpe purchased a Polaroid, his first camera. According to the 1988 book bearing his name, Mapplethorpe ‘…was not a “photographer,” did not think of himself as a “photographer,” and did not aspire to become a “photographer.” He merely wanted to take his own pictures rather than use someone else’s from magazines…’ in his own art and sculpture.
Mapplethorpe’s desire to control how his photographs were viewed intrigues me. More often than not, he made his own frames or built complex and often symbolic framing devices. On several occasions he incorporated mirrors to insert the viewer directly into the piece being viewed.
The two decades of his work, primarily focusing on black and white, reveal an artist equally capable of capturing the beautiful and the profane. His daring nudes and homoerotic pieces have received praise and simultaneous condemnation as “obscene” and pornographic; his still life’s are intricate studies of light and shadow; his striking portraits always seem to capture and communicate a tangible essence of his subject. For me, Mapplethorpe’s mastery of lighting and staging is the hallmark of his work.
I find the most compelling of Mapplethorpe’s works to be his flower photographs. Flowers are one of my own favorite subjects in my photographic efforts. While staging such a photo, I have often found myself wondering or trying to imagine how Mapplethorpe might have framed or lit or positioned the object I am working with.
Mapplethorpe’s work has always made me feel something. Despite whether I like or dislike a particular piece of his work, I will feel something. I find it significant then, that in Smith’s 1996 biographic poem and homage to Mapplethorpe, The Coral Sea, she states:
“Nature,” he had boasted, “was meant to be redesigned, and opened, and folded, like a fan…His delicate eyes saw with clarity what others did not… He didn’t like to think, he didn’t like to talk; he liked to feel.”
Robert Mapplethorpe died in 1989. The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation continues to exhibit his work worldwide.