“I want people to see my works first as art and second as photography.” Robert Mapplethorpe.
Robert Mapplethorpe was born in Long Island to a middle class Catholic family. He left home at 16 and from 1963 to 1970 studied painting and sculpture at the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn. Around 1970 he started making collages out of erotic clippings and in 1972 began taking his own photographs with a Polaroid. Between 1972 and 1974 Mapplethorpe started collecting turn-of-the-century photographs as part of his growing interest in photography.
After a small exhibition of his work alongside Bridget Polk and Andy Warhol, Mapplethorpe had his first one-man exhibition of Polaroids at New York’s Light Gallery. A number of familiar images recur in his work such as flowers, portraits and erotic scenes. In order to improve his control over the image Mapplethorpe changed to a Hasselblad camera and began working with negative film and light. In 1977 he exhibited twice, at the Holly Solomon Gallery and at The Kitchen, both in New York. From 1978 onwards Mapplethorpe’s work was widely exhibited.
Throughout his career he forged a number of close lasting relationships, for example with the singer Patti Smith who he photographed a number of times including photos for three of her album covers, and Lisa Lyon, the world’s first World Champion of Female Bodybuilding, who he met in 1980 and with whom he went on to collaborate on the book Lady. In 1988 he had his first retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and later at the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art which then travelled to Chicago, Washington, Hartford, Berkeley and Cincinnati. The graphic nature of many of his photos, particularly those depicting sadomasochistic scenes, caused a great deal of controversy.
Mapplethorpe’s photographs show a fascination with questions of iconography and intimacy. A photo such as ‘Bobby and Larry Kissing’ (1980) can be seen ambiguously, both as a celebration of homosexuality and as an intimate portrait of a couple in love. Mapplethorpe manages to convey both a physical and emotional closeness to his subjects and yet creates a sense of detachment at the same time. He was inspired by many great painters and sculptors, including Salvador Dali, Man Ray and Auguste Rodin, often reproducing scenes from their works. He died in 1989 from complications due to AIDS.