Robert Mapplethorpe – the Hustler with a Hasselblad who Thrilled and Horrified America

When we say Robert Mapplethorpe, what you say? Well, we think you say sexuality, provocation and inspiration, but more about it below.

One of the most prolific and influential artists of the twentieth century, American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, the master of art photography, famed for his highly controversial and sexually explicit images, radically changed the preconceptions of medium and stretched its boundaries, both in themes and style. Mapplethorpe’s diverse body of work, includes portraiture and still life photographs of flowers, but is widely recognized for his dark and decadent photographs of erotic imagery. Often underestimated and even more often dismissed as being nothing more than pornography, Mapplethorpe created fine art photography of explicit nude forms, influenced both by classical traditions of great masters like Michelangelo and Caravaggio, and, on the other end, surrealist photographs of Man Ray.

Controversy and Mapplethorpe go hand in hand although these days we may wonder quite why. In the 70’s and 80’s though, he was a pioneer in showing the beauty behind male (and female) eroticism and sexuality through photography.

Robert Mapplethorpe (November 4, 1946 – March 9, 1989) was an American photographer, known for his sensitive yet blunt treatment of controversial subject-matter in the large-scale, highly stylized black and white medium of photography. His work featured an array of subjects, including celebrity portraits, male and female nudes, self-portraits and still-life images of flowers. His most controversial work is that of the underground BDSM scene in the late 1960s and early 1970s of New York City. The homoeroticism of this work fuelled a national debate over the public funding of controversial artwork. Read more…

Self Portrait 1980 Robert Mapplethorpe

Mapplethorpe is an artist who is primarily associated with his provocative photographs of the underground BDSM and gay scene in New York in the 1960s and 1970s. The Grand Palais’ exhibition seeks to adjust this imbalanced view of the American artist with one of the largest retrospectives ever made for an artist in a museum, with over 250 works displayed.

Visitors interested in his controversial works depicting the sadomasochism and hyper-sexualised characters of the New York homosexual community will not be disappointed – there is a discreet room separate from the main exhibition that is barred to under-18s – but it is meant to be seen as simply one part of the artist’s oeuvre, and by no means defining it.

Of course, there is a current of sexuality running through all of the works in the exhibition. The first room opens with a quote from Mapplethorpe: “I am looking for perfection in form. I do that with portraits. I do it with cocks. I do it with flowers.” Phallic objects such as an aubergine, a cactus and a flower are juxtaposed with portraits of enormous penises, shocking the visitor into recognition of their parallel beauty. Even his straight portraits of flowers are incredibly sensual, the vivid colour and macro-detail lush and eloquent as a Georgia O’Keeffe painting.

Mapplethorpe explained his subject matter: “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.” 

But although Mapplethorpe is clearly driven by depicting the erotic, it is secondary to his study of form. Mapplethorpe is not a documentarist: his portraits of famous faces such as Patti Smith, Andy Warhol and David Hockney are not there to catalogue his lifestyle or those of his contemporaries. Instead, every portrait is seen through the prism of sculpture and an interest in the geometry of the human body. His four-part black-and-white study Ajitto in 1981 shows a black man sitting on a cloth-coloured stool, hugging his knees. His position on his pedestal is photographed from each side, allowing the viewer to see the way the shadow and light accentuates his muscles, picked out in perfect shades of grey. The detail is exquisite.

Lisa Lyon, 1982

In the same room are Mapplethorpe’s photographs of sculptures such as Hermes in 1988, a close-up of a white marble face against a black background. The nuances of shading are barely imperceptible, unlike his hyper-detailed portrait Ken Moody and Robert Sherman, 1984, which shows the heads of an albino and a black man, the smooth pates of their heads in perfect symmetry just as the colour is in perfect contrast. In an interview in 1987, Mapplethorpe said, ““If I had been born one hundred or two hundred years ago, I might have been a sculptor, but photography is a very quick way […] to make a sculpture.”

Structured anti-chronologically, the exhibition is book-ended by a self-portrait taken near the end of his life: it shows him holding a skull-topped cane and staring at the camera, a morbid acknowledgement of his own mortality before the AIDS epidemic ripped through his life, taking friends, ex-partners, and eventually, himself.

Patti Smith, 1979

Robert left a legacy of thousands of beautiful photographs of faces, flowers and fetishes when he died of Aids on 9 March 1989 at the age of 42. He had assaulted American concepts of race, sex, gender and morality. Born in Floral Park, New York, in 1946, he was on trial all of his short life, anti-gay legislation making him a sexual outlaw. His work too was on trial: it ran gauntlets of homophobia to hang today in such international sanctuaries as the Tate in Britain, and the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. In 1990, at the height of US hysteria over Aids, a witch hunt in Cincinnati put seven of his frames on trial, aiming to sort art from obscenity. Robert’s photos won.

He changed popular culture. The sort of sex pictures he dared to shoot are now shot every day by millions, minus his style, on Snapchat and Grindr.

“I’ve always been honest with people. I’ve never lied. I think I’ve lived a moral life.”

Robert was not just a photographer: he was an artist who was a photographer. He came alive, he said, after the Stonewall riot against the New York police, which began modern gay liberation in June 1969. He sped into the 1970s on charm, poppers and MDA. He made it his job to rub elbows and plough the pertinent at Warhol’s Factory, Studio 54 and Max’s Kansas City.
The bad boy had tuxedo elegance and leather attitude perfect for the jet set. He often wore a green velvet jacket for dressing straight at drop-dead soirees in London, New York, and Mustique with friends and faces he shot: Princess Margaret, Lord Snowdon, Carolina Herrera, David Hockney, Doris Saatchi, Bruce Chatwin, Lady Rose Lambton, Julian Sands, Marianne Faithfull, Yoko Ono, Keith Haring, Susan Sarandon, Thom Gunn, Philip Glass and punk Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis. When he shot Katherine Cebrian, the elderly San Francisco grande dame, the bright silver studs on the back of his big leather belt spelled SHIT. Read more…

“Man in Polyester Suit” (1980) cemented the artist’s reputation, and in 2015 sold for nearly half a million dollars.

Mapplethorpe is synonymous with obscenity. There’s no denying many of his images are obscene, but it’s not done for obscenity’s sake alone. With a precise sense of vision and the passionate soul of an artist, Mapplethorpe confronts us with bold images, many of them taken in an underground world of bondage and danger. These pictures pushed a lot of buttons when they first appeared, and they keep pushing buttons decades later. These days, thanks to the Internet, BDSM has come out of the shadows and we see it everywhere—but Mapplethorpe’s pictures still have the power to shock us. Here’s a look at 5 major aspects of the artist’s life and work.


Coming of age sexually in 1970s New York City, Mapplethorpe was on the cusp of shifting trends in homosexuality. Pushing back against the stereotype of effeminate gayness, “activists advanced the notion that a man could be both gay and virile.” For many gay men, this was played out in the S&M subculture, where they “enacted complicated master-slave scenarios that tested one’s masculinity.” For Mapplethorpe, being gay and testing one’s sexual limits went hand-in-hand. He took his camera, and his desires, into the deepest, darkest recesses of sex play.

Tragically, Mapplethorpe, like so many of his contemporaries, would be among the early victims of AIDS, which also went hand-in-hand with being gay at the time. But before he died, at 42, he ensured the solidity of his legacy by creating a foundation, based on the phenomenal high-ticket sales of his photographs. The Mapplethorpe Foundation provides funding for AIDS research and treatment at major institutions in New York and Boston, and for the continuing advancement of photography as an art form.

Poppy, 1988


Immersed in the steamy underbelly of the city’s gay scene, Mapplethorpe became obsessed with black men. Cross-racial sex was still radical—very exotic and highly alluring to white men. To men like Mapplethorpe, black men were built better, bigger, more beautiful—every stereotype come to life. It was an aesthetic perspective, but it was also racist. Mapplethorpe threw around the n-word with blatant disregard, and he made no secret about seeking a black man who was “free enough” to let him use the offensive word in bed.

The photos he took of black men are among the strongest in his vast body of work. As seen through Mapplethorpe’s lens, the black male body is a finely wrought sculpture, a carving of darkest ebony, a solid platonic form occupying space in the most assertive way possible.


Raised in a Catholic family, Mapplethorpe was well acquainted with concepts like sin and guilt and punishment. Add in his innately dark sensibility and adventurous spirit, and no wonder he was drawn to the BDSM world like a moth to flame. What was different was his definition of S&M: for him it was not sadism and masochism, it was sex and magic. “Sex is magic,” he said. “If you channel it right, there’s more energy in sex than there is in art.”

What was different about his work in BDSM was his turning the tables on the more commonly seen imagery of so-called deviant sex, a hetero fantasy of submissive women bound in ropes against a posh backdrop. Mapplethorpe showed submissive men without any context at all, often decontextualizing them further by cutting off body parts at the edge of the frame. He exposed the world to outlandish sexual acts and instigated heated controversy that smolders to this day.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter, 1979

Participatory art-making

Mapplethorpe’s commitment to truth-telling extended past the camera. For real truth, he had to get in on the act. Putting himself in front of the lens, he first experimented with nipple clamps and other implements of pleasure/pain to learn what he liked. Later on his Chelsea loft “had become a port-of-call for men with every conceivable sexual perversion, and they arrived with suitcases, and sometimes doctor’s bags, filled with catheters, scalpels, syringes, needles, laxatives, hot water bottles, rope, handcuffs, and pills. They dressed up as women, SS troopers, and pigs.”

It was important to Mapplethorpe that he have the full experience, and he tested his limits on both sides of the lens. As a participant, he discovered certain personal boundaries, but as a photographer he didn’t hold anything back. The resulting images have an indelibly startling quality.

When Mapplethorpe met Patti Smith, all kinds of sparks flew. The two would remain close friends throughout his life, even as their lives veered apart.

Patti Smith

A strong thread running through Mapplethorpe’s life was his friendship with Patti Smith. They were the same age and had similar artistic vision, and their connection was instantaneous. In 1969, living at the famed Chelsea Hotel, they were surrounded by other soon-to-be-famous artists and musicians. “Everyone had something to offer and nobody seemed to have much money. Even the successful seemed to have just enough to live like extravagant bums.” They hung out at CBGB and Andy Warhol’s Factory. They lived and breathed art.

“Robert believed in me as much as he believed in himself, and it was incredible how much he believed in himself. … He would not rest until he helped me dive down, down, down, and access my confident part. And I did access it, finally. It came out in a funny way, as a performer. But because he gave it to me so early in life, I don’t have to be given it again and again—I just have it.”

At 69, Smith continues to deliver powerful performances all over the world and has published two memoirs, “Just Kids,” about her relationship with Mapplethorpe, and “M Train.”

Read biography on Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation website

Read Biography on Alchetron

Lisa Lyon, 1982

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Even more photos of Robert Mapplethorpe on Alafoto Gallery here

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