Born on November 4, 1946 in, Floral Park, New York, U.S.A, this photographer left a mark on the art fraternity for his unique and powerful black and white portraits. His prominent works covered themes including self-portraits, celebrity portraits, still life images of flowers and nudes of males and females. It is perhaps the homoerotic genre that Mapplethorpe is best known for. Robert was noted for being experimental with his work. His distinctive style earned him admiration at one time and at other times he found himself in the midst of controversies.
Robert Mapplethorpe was born in Roman Catholic family to Joan Dorothy (Maxey) and Harry Irving Mapplethorpe, who was an electrical engineer. He was of Irish, English and German descent. He had five siblings including two sisters and three brothers. When he was sixteen years old, Mapplethorpe enrolled into Pratt Institute, Brooklyn where he studied for a Bachelors of Fine Arts. Mapplethorpe majored in Graphic Arts. However, he dropped out in 1969 before finishing. During his time at the Pratt Institute, he met a lot of prominent people including well known artists but none had a lasting impression on Mapplethorpe’s life like Patti Smith. She was an artist, a poet and a musician. He spent the next several years of his life with Patti Smith, who was his love, his friend and who posed for his portraits.
Journey as a Photographer
Mapplethorpe initially did not intend to be a photographer. Through the years from 1970 to 1974 he used to make assemblages with images of men from pornographic magazines. It was the desire to incorporate his own images in these assemblages that encouraged him towards photography. He started with a Polaroid SX-70 camera. With natural finesse that he had in portraiture, Mapplethorpe soon got the recognition he deserved. He started working as a staff photographer for Andy Warhol’s magazine‘Interview’. He photographed for the album covers for the group Television and Smith. He also photographed celebrities like Carolina Herrera John Paul Getty-III.
In 1972, Mapplethorpe met Sam Wagstaff who would become and remain a friend and eventual lover till Wagstaff’s death in 1986. Wagstaff had prominent role in Mapplethorpe’s career progression, his overall development as a photographer and his gallery associations. By the late 1970s Mapplethorpe was at the helm of artistic excellence and his work portrayed a rich mix of style and classical taste. His works in the homoeroticism genre created much furor that eventually culminated in the decimation of Federal Government’s support for artists.
As much as his career was shrouded with controversies, one cannot deny the artistic excellence in the works of Mapplethorpe. Most of his works loomed around experimenting with the paradoxes and binary relationships like women body builders, gay portraits, Black skin with white background etc.
His prominent works include the Calla Lily, Patti Smith 1975, Derrick Cross 1983, Lisa Lyon 1980, Lindsay Key 1985 in which he has used his signature style of black and white photography. He is also known for his self-portraits. When asked why he liked self-portraits, Mapplethorpe had once said that it helps him bring out the shades of his character he is most confident with. Still at the helm of his career, Robert Mapplethorpe breathed his last in 1989 leaving a legacy, few can match.
"I am obsessed with beauty. I want everything to be perfect, and of course it isn’t. And that’s a tough place to be because you’re never satisfied." ~ Robert Mapplethorpe
"When I work, and in my art, I hold hands with God." ~ Robert Mapplethorpe