Libido: Reviews: Mapplethorpe
Pictures - Robert Mapplethorpe

By Jack Hafferkamp

In the annals of 20th-century bad-boy photographers, Robert Mapplethorpe ranks at the top of the list. One might say, in fact, that it was Mapplethorpe who made bad beautiful. Now, a decade after his death from AIDS, we have Pictures, a collection of 103 photos edited and designed by Dimitri Levas, and dedicated to presenting in one place Mapplethorpe’s sex images and portraits of the people who had sex or became sex objects for his camera.

What made Mapplethorpe such a scandalous and dangerous figure was that his exquisite sex images were not only of gay behavior, they also were often of gay sadomasochistic behavior. Collected here, then, are otherwise-scattered pieces of Mapplethorpia: the famous self-portrait with the bullwhip up his ass, the headless portrait of Mark (“Mr. 10 1/2”) Stevens bent over his meal ticket lying on a pedestal, fisting photos, the gruesome photos of Richard’s bloody penis nailed to a board, the Sausalito portrait of the hooded man pissing into another’s mouth.

Even now this work has the ability to shock and outrage. It can also turn off the unready. I’ve handed this book to straight-identified male friends who took a quick look, slammed it shut and, if they did not quickly change the subject, were at some pains to point out that what was going on in the photos did not “interest” them sexually. Even for many guys who think of themselves as with-it, urbane sophisticates, Mapplethorpe can be too much.

But he also can’t be ignored. His work was, afterall, the subject of a famous and important clash in Cincinnati between the forces of censorship and the forces of openness in a national debate over public funding for the arts and the First Amendment. The censors wanted Mapple-thorpe’s show stopped as a community outrage. At a widely-publicized trial the exhibits presenters won the right to show Mapplethorpe’s work.

Yet while they won, the show’s backers also lost — through diminished funding and an eventual and inevitable change in leadership that showed the residual power of the conservatism of the ruling elite in “Censornatti.”

Pictures is enhanced by an engaging and insightful essay on Mapplethorpe by lngrid Sischy. As she says:

If one only heard about Mapplethorpe’s most graphic images, instead of looking at them, one might think they resemble pornography. But there is a world of difference between a Mapplethorpe image and pornography. For a start, his subjects weren’t for hire. The relationships depicted are real. As Mapplethorpe once bluntly said, “The people involved in those sexual pictures are really involved in what they were doing. It’s their thing. If there was somebody that happened to be drinking piss in the photograph, he was, in fact, into drinking piss. He wasn’t doing it for the pictures.” The word “Shocking” has been used often to describe his explicit pictures. I think what shocks isn’t just the material, but how it is so artfully presented. The content, lighting, composition, sense of order and aesthetics all combine to give the photographs an unforgettable impact. If one listens to the comments of viewers as they absorb these images, one will often hear someone say with surprise, “I can’t believe how beautiful they are.” In fact, beauty was Mapplethorpe’s bullet. He loved it, and he used it to wipe out old notions of the pitifulness of homosexuality. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the men in Mapplethorpe’s pictures, who came from all walks of life, wanted to be photographed. In a way these images always remind me of Matthew Brady’s civil war (sic.) pictures, taken right before the soldiers went out to battle.

Pictures was created in conjunction with the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, and it serves nicely as a major summation of a major aspect of what made Mapplethorpe Mapplethorpe.

Pictures. Robert Mapplethorpe, designed and edited by Dimitri Levas, with an essay by Ingrid Sischy (Arena Editions, Sante Fe, NM, 1999. 505-986-9132. ISBN: 1-892041-16-2. 220 pages, 103 duotone plates, $75)

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