“I went into photography because it seemed like the perfect vehicle for commenting on the madness of today’s existence.” -Robert Mapplethorpe
Mapplethorpe, the early years
Mapplethorpe earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute from 1963 to 1970, While at Pratt, he met fellow artist, musician and poet Patti Smith who encouraged him in his creative endeavors. She posed for him for several portraits while they lived together, first in Brooklyn then in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. The hotel was a gathering place for musicians, writers and other artists.
Robert Mapplethorpe made mixed media works featuring photos of men he gathered from pornographic magazines, found items and painting. He used a Polaroid SX-70 camera to make his own images for his creations. This led to his becoming a photographic portraitist. He worked for Andy Warhol on “Interview” magazine. He also made album covers s for Patti Smith and the group Television.
Flowers & male nudes
1977 saw Mapplethorpe having his first major shows — photographs of flowers at the Holly Solomon Gallery and another at the Kitchen that featured his male nudes and sadomasochistic images. This diversity of work along with his sculpture, mixed media, commissioned portraits, portraits of children are all tied together by his fastidious technique.
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.Beauty and the devil are the same thing.
Women & children
Mapplethorpe made amazingly beautiful portraits of women like Isabella Rossellini and Sigourney Weaver. In 1980, he became friends with and produced a book of photographs of the first World Women’s Body Building Champion. It was called “Lady, Lisa Lyon.” At the same time, he made timeless photographs of children. Some of them are in the style of his portraits of women while others show a wistfulness that seems only to belong to children.
The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation
Mapplethorpe was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986 which accelerated his output of work. That year was also hugely productive for Mapplethorpe. He designed the sets for Lucinda Childs’ dance show “Portraits in Reflection,” made a series of photogravure for Arthur Rimbaud titled “A Season in Hell” and accepted a commission to make portraits for the Book “50 New York Artists.”
Mapplethorpe established the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation on May 27, 1988, to protect his body of work and advance his creative vision. He established mandates for furthering the recognition of photography as an art having the same respect as painting and sculpture. It was to support AIDS and HIV research as well.
He continued to work as his illness progressed. The Whitney Museum of American Art mounted a retrospective of his work in 1988. It was the first of many retrospective and, sadly the only one while Robert Mapplethorpe was living.
When I work, and in my art, I hold hands with God.
A final assignment
Robert Mapplethorpe completed his last photographic assignment on April 4, 1989, for Time magazine. His subject was then, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. It was 37 days before Robert Mapplethorpe died of AIDS.
Read more mini-biographies of influential photographers on Photofocus.