Robert Mapplethorpe remains one of the most famous photographers of the 80’s who stood out because of the way he rendered his predominantly black and white photography, and even more so, for his provocative thematics, frequently involving overt nudity, sexually explicit moments, homoeroticism and the aesthetics of sado masochism. Some see him as famous, some as notorious because of what can be perceived as obscene imagery, but the truth is, Mapplethrope was the conceiver of unique poetics, making the hidden and the tabooed accessible to the masses. At the peak of his career, he was beaten by AIDS, while his life evolution can be tracked through subtle hints of his self portrait photography. The one above was made in 1975.
Mapplethorpe’s nudes are simple and polished. Featured is one of his black male nude torsos, done six years prior to his exhibition Black Males and the subsequent edition called The Black Book. This torso epitomizes all the primary traits of his style – clear, unburdened composition, sculptural quality of human body in focus, smooth, shiny texture.
Editors’ Tip: Robert Mapplethorpe: The Black Book
First published in 1986, The Black Book presents 96 formally stringent and highly erotic nudes, all of them photographs of black men, either as full figures, or staged as details, as fragments of their bodies.
Mapplethorpe got acquainted with Lisa Lyon, the first World Women’s Bodybuilding Champion in 1980, and soon she became one of his muses, recurring in numerous nude photographs – figure studies and portraits.
Early 80’s marked a significant refinement in the photographer’s style, where he started to implement elegant imagery. The nude of innocent-looking, beautiful young black man with a bouquet of calla-lilies is one of Mapplethorpe’s best known nude photographs, which also hints his aesthetic affinities, not only for human anatomy, but for flowers as well.
Fascinated with her strong and classically beautiful body, Mapplethorpe made more nudes of Lisa Lyon, the upper depicting all the muscular strength she possesses, while hinting the kink in black straps wrapped around her. Strong contrasts and timelessness ooze from these slightly erotic images.
Editors’ Tip: Lady: Lisa Lyon
Mapplethorpe's provocative portrait of Lisa Lyon, the first World Women's Bodybuilding Champion.
Homoerotic themes were dominant throughout Mapplethorpe’s oeuvre. While his more provocative S&M couples depicted tabooed sexual acts, nudes hint the subject more subtly. Juxtaposing black and white perfect male body to one another, the artist here introduces linearity into the piece held together by strong black and white contrasts. The undertone of role shifting in a gay relationship is also read in this photograph.
This amazingly lustrous silver gelatin print depicts the perfection of Mapplethorpe’s photographic practice and his dedication and skill in the techniques. Stretched out female torso is no longer even human, it’s a torso of a goddess, with unnatural, incredibly smooth silvery skin, floating in the black universe. Contrast, tactility and elevated eroticism are immanent to this work.
It’s difficult to leave Mapplethorpe’s overtly homosexual lifestyle aside when interpreting his nudes, and there’s really no need to do this. The 1981 lower back torso, an actual shot of a beautiful man’s behind is another emblem of the artist’s oeuvre, implicative of compressed sexual power and an ode to classical male beauty. The shift towards poised from the early decade is shown in this work perfectly.
As a contrast to Ken and Tyler, a double female nude Sonia and Tracy was shot in 1988. Staged, polished and slightly contrasted, this work openly speaks of Sapphic love, as a counterpart of his homoerotic depictions. Composition is held together by two limber bodies, positioned in an artificial exhibit of affection. Mapplethorpe usually focused on the bodily quality, deliberately omitting the head from the shot, but here, the concentration is set on the emotional value of the scene as well.
Editors’ Tip: Polaroids
The book includes self-portraits, figure studies, still lifes, portraits of lovers and friends such as Patti Smith, Sam Wagstaff, and Marianne Faithful, and observations of everyday objects.
Symmetry and contrast, black and white, this work is so tightly knit with the core idea of Mapplethorpe’s photography, simultaneously celebrating all the values he held high. Also an early 80’s piece, it hints refinement, as well as the thematic ideas that will pervade the world of nudes of the silver gelatin print master.
Mapplethorpe’s obsession with contrasts affected his conceptual approach as much as his visual photographic demonstrations. All of his nudes, figure studies, an homage to the supremacy of human body are in fact the interplay between the Apollonian and the Dionysian perception of human nature, portrayed in a particularly purified, highly anesthetized manner. Thomas nudes from 1987 are strikingly resemblant of ancient Greek vases or friezes, where the model is captured in numerous poses of epic battle, fighting the dark of decay, while his beautiful self-remains immortalized in the work of the brilliant photographer.
All images used for illustrative purposes only.