Raf Simons debuted his Spring 2017 collection at Pitti Uomo last week, receiving a giddy reaction on social media and in the fashion press. While Simon’s trademark oversized silhouettes are present, it’s the bold black and white photographic prints adorning each garment that have everybody talking.
They are images from famed photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, a man who is commonly known for his graphic representation of the underground New York gay and fetish scenes of the 1970s and ’80s.
Earlier this year, his estate, the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, reached out to Simons to ask if he would be interested in using the late photographer’s images for a small capsule collection. Simons jumped at the idea, shelving the original plans he had been working on and turning his full attention to the photographs. The subsequent collection is a high-wire blend of Simon’s unmistakable approach with Mapplethorpe’s visceral, and often explicit, imagery.
While the erect penis pictures will no doubt grab the headlines (as they did when Mapplethorpe first exhibited them over 30 years ago), there is more to Mapplethorpe than sexually-charged imagery. We take a look at the man and his work to understand why he has become such an important figure in the history of American photography.
The Most Shocking Photographer in the World
Born in 1946 in Queens, New York, Robert Mapplethorpe was one of six children. Raised in a typical blue-collar neighborhood, his father was an electrical engineer and his mother a strict Catholic. As soon as he was old enough, he left the family home and moved across the river to Manhattan, a far livelier place where he was introduced to new ideas, people and opportunities.
He began studying Fine Art at Pratt University in Brooklyn, but dropped out in his second year. The experience did nothing to quell his desire to create art and he turned his attention to creating collages, specifically using cut-outs of pictures he sourced from magazines and newspapers. He was fascinated with pornography and his work was often graphic in nature. Initially, he stuck to using the photography of others, but changed direction when he was given his first Polaroid camera in the early 1970s by a close friend.
Immediately, he started taking self-portraits – something he would continue to do throughout his life – initially using them in his collages, then eventually as standalone works. He found early success, having his first solo exhibition at the Light Gallery in New York in 1973. This gave him the confidence to take photography seriously and he soon purchased a Hasselblad camera.
With his Hasselblad he began photographing his friendship group, as well as actors, composers, artists and the occasional porn star. In 1975, he had his biggest break when his close friend Patti Smith, the singer and songwriter, used one of his images for the cover of her debut album, Horses.
The mid to late ’70s were characterized by exploration, both artistically and sexually, for Mapplethorpe. Initially trying to suppress his homosexuality for fear of rejection from his conservative family, he finally embraced it and found himself drawn towards the underground gay scene in New York. This voyage of self-discovery saw him regularly visiting S&M clubs, and he became deeply involved in the lifestyle. Because of his active participation within the scene, many of the men he met trusted him and were happy to sit for his photographs.
Because of his unique position, Mapplethorpe captured this community on film, for perhaps the first time. The images ranged from suggestive to explicit and the result was as revolutionary as it was shocking. He used classic portraiture techniques to depict homoerotic and sadomasochistic acts in an artistic way, treating the subject matter with a deft skillfulness, as if it were a still life.
Images included men urinating into each other’s mouths, male and female nudity, rubber, chains and bondage gear. These were controversial subjects, especially in the ’70s and ’80s where homosexuality and extreme sex acts were met with even less acceptance than they are today.
Mapplethorpe said that he captured images like this not because he wanted to shock, but because he was “looking for the unexpected.” “I’m looking for things I’ve never seen before,” he said. “I was in a position to take those pictures. I felt an obligation to do them.” But the depictions also had a humanistic element. Behind the costumes were real people who had all found themselves a safe place away from a world that deemed their actions immoral and wrong. His work in this period could be brutal and extreme, but it also had a certain tenderness.
Mapplethorpe soon gained a reputation and met many men who were happy to assist him artistically and financially. John McKendry, in charge of prints and photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, allowed Mapplethorpe access to the Met’s private and diverse photography collection, and it was here that he was introduced to people such as Paul Strand and Edward Steichen; classic black and white photographers who were progressive in their portraiture style.
Sam Wagstaff, a famous art collector and curator, also bought Mapplethorpe a loft apartment in Manhattan that he used extensively as his studio. Here men would come over dressed in all manner of fetish clothing, with suitcases full of toys and props.
This period, lasting until the early ’80s, is what Mapplethorpe is perhaps best known for. It helped to establish his notoriety as a prominent photographer who was not afraid to use the medium to show the world something they had never seen before.
Other Subject Matter
Although widely known for his homoerotic images, Mapplethorpe has a varied and wide-ranging portfolio. Throughout the late ’70s and ’80s, he photographed flowers, and, while his trademark black and white aesthetic remained, so did the eroticism.
Playing with light and shadow, there is a strange sexuality to this period of work, the intention being to show that sexuality pervades everything from a flowering orchid to a basement dungeon in a New York fetish club. The ability to look at something as virginal as a pure white lily and cast it in a completely different light reveals Mapplethorpe’s singular viewpoint.
He also shot female nudes, focusing on the American body builder Lisa Lyon in particular. He repeatedly shot her in his studio and on location, focusing on her powerful, well-toned physique; another example of Mapplethorpe’s interest in non-traditional forms of beauty.
In the mid-’80s, he toned down his work and it became more formal. There was still nudity, but it was far less sexually charged. He focused on muscular African-American men, paying close attention to their form and stature, reminiscent of photographers such as Horst P. Horst.
As his popularity grew, many people sat for him, including Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Richard Gere, Iggy Pop and Arnold Schwarzenegger, all captured in his classical portrait style.
Obscenity and Art
One of the most important long-term effects of his work was that is raised the issue of obscenity within art and started a nationwide debate on censorship. As with all controversial subject matter, there was a reaction from those that wanted it banned, who battled with people who defended freedom of expression.
Mapplethorpe was well aware of the impact of his work and played with the idea of shock to get his message across. Journalist Deborah Levinson believes that his explicit work had an ulterior motive. “Shocking the public in order to sensitize them to gay issues was one of Mapplethorpe’s primary goals,” she said.
The issue of obscenity, and what should be judged as “offensive,” was felt acutely in the summer of 1989, shortly before Mapplethorpe’s death from complications with HIV/AIDS. He was preparing a tour of his solo exhibition, “The Perfect Moment,” and had arranged for the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. to be one of the host museums.
As the images were revealed, the chairman of the gallery, and some members of Congress, objected on the grounds that the content was both obscene and immoral. They refused to open the show, censoring Mapplethorpe’s work on the grounds that it was pornography, not art. The episode raised serious questions about the repressive nature of established institutions and the border between porn and art.
Distilling Mapplethorpe Through Simons
In a sense, Raf Simons’ use of Mapplethorpe’s images mirror the photographer’s desire to provoke a reaction. But for some, Simons’ appropriation seems shallow. Mapplethorpe was trying to show the world a new scene and make people aware of a community to which they were previously oblivious. He wanted to give a voice and face to a maligned group, who were shunned, ridiculed and called immoral for a lifestyle that caused outsiders no harm.
While Simon’s love of Mapplethorpe can’t be called into question, printing an erect penis on a garment (even with the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation’s explicit blessing) has engendered a predictable reaction; but the subtle meaning and nuanced observation Mapplethorpe injected into his images may have been lost, and the struggle to represent New York’s gay scene overlooked.
The Shock Is the Message
The graphic nature of Mapplethorpe’s photography will always bring accusations that his work was merely used to shock. His choice of subject matter, and its stark representation in black and white, undoubtedly brings about mixed feelings in audiences, but it has helped fuel a debate about the relationship between art, censorship and obscenity. Those who say that there is no substance behind the images are discrediting a talented, visionary man who clearly understood the artistic, and social, effects of his work.
Mapplethorpe, with his studied treatment of a whole community, is as much a documenter of societal behavior as he is an artist. There was a lot of social upheaval during his period of work, especially in New York, and people of color and gay communities were often treated as inferior. They were maligned and neglected. Mapplethorpe’s explicit content helped to shed a light on marginalized communities.
Simons latest collection has been praised as brave, which speaks volumes about how tastes have changed in the 25 years since Mapplethorpe’s death. Most importantly, it shows that uncompromising individuals like Mapplethorpe and Simons have the power to change public perceptions.
For more iconic photographers, check back next month for a fresh installment of Know Your Photographers.
- Words: Charlie Haywood