When I have sex with someone I forget who I am. For a minute I even forget I’m human. It’s the same thing when I’m behind a camera. I forget I exist.”
– Robert Mapplethorpe
Robert Michael Mapplethorpe (1946 – 1989) was an American photographer, best known for his black-and-white photographs. His work featured an array of subjects, including celebrity portraits, male and female nudes, self-portraits, and still-life images. His most controversial works documented and examined the homosexual male BDSM subculture of New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s. A 1989 exhibition of Mapplethorpe’s work, titled Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, sparked a debate in the United States concerning both use of public funds for “obscene” artwork and the Constitutional limits of free speech in the United States.
Mapplethorpe was born in Floral Park, Nassau County, Long Island, New York, the son of Joan Dorothy (Maxey) and Harry Irving Mapplethorpe, an electrical engineer. He was of English, Irish, and German descent, and grew up as a Catholic in Our Lady of the Snows Parish. He had three brothers and two sisters. One of his brothers, Edward, later worked for him as an assistant and became a photographer as well. He studied for a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he majored in Graphic Arts, though he dropped out in 1969 before finishing his degree. Mapplethorpe took his first photographs in the late 1960s or early 1970s using a Polaroid camera. Mapplethorpe took many pictures of the Mineshaft (a members-only BDSM gay leather bar and sex club in Manhattan) and was at one point its official photographer. By the 1980s, Mapplethorpe’s subject matter focused on statuesque male and female nudes, delicate flower still lifes, and highly formal portraits of artists and celebrities. Mapplethorpe died on the morning of March 9, 1989, at the age of 42 due to complications from HIV/AIDS.
Robert Mapplethorpe became famous, not to say, notorious, in the 1970s and 1980s for his photographs of the male nude and sexually explicit, gay imagery. Although often considered controversial, Mapplethorpe tested the right to individual freedom of expression. These images were not meant to be titillating or obscene but beautiful in a traditionally classical way. His work, therefore, holds a significant place in the history of artistic struggle to depict the world as it is, with honesty and truth. His nudes, when considered alongside his portraits of children and flower photographs, show him to be overwhelmingly interested in the beauty and transience of life. Mapplethorpe, even when facing death from AIDS, affirmed the beauty of the here and now.
His vast, provocative, and powerful body of work have established him as one of the most important artists of the twentieth century. Today Mapplethorpe is represented by galleries in North and South America and Europe and his work can be found in the collections of major museums around the world. Beyond the art historical and social significance of his work, his legacy lives on through the work of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. He established the Foundation in 1988 to promote photography, support museums that exhibit photographic art, and fund medical research in the fight against AIDS and HIV.
Mapplethorpe’s floral still lifes, a series of up-close photographs of the beautiful, hairy blooms in all of their fragility and vivid power, are perhaps the most intense distillation of the artist’s doubleness. The photographs draw on a rich and storied history of artists depicting flora. In possession of an unignorable and intense sensuality, all billowing texture and glistening, the magnetism of these visuals are undeniable.