Recently, I’ve been thinking about Robert Mapplethorpe. I don’t remember how I first heard of Mapplethorpe’s work. I knew that he was a photographer, and accompanied by vague uneasiness, perhaps an overt sexuality and/or interest in taboo. I knew that many people found his work shocking. At some points during his career, his work was deemed unacceptable and inappropriate, shows were cancelled, grants were taken away, and his books of photography were banned. He was condemned, vilified, and ultimately, made into an icon.
I don’t like that particular word ‘shocking.’ I’m looking for the unexpected. I’m looking for things I’ve never seen before. ~ Robert Mapplethorpe
But what was it about Mapplethorpe that people found shocking? His photographs of flowers were well received and generated a strong interest in his work. Mapplethorpe had a brilliant eye. One can look at any of his flower portraits and feel deep sensuality simply throbbing on the surface of the petals.
It would seem natural, a progression of his vision, to turn his eye toward the human body, to seek and expose the body much in the same way as he exposed his flowers. Light. Shadow. A captured image, fleeting, showing itself on the surface, leaving one with strong emotions, feelings, tapping into the non-verbal core within us.
But instead of just capturing beautiful bodies as still life, he began taking pictures of action and behavior. Images of Transvestitism, Homosexuality, Bondage, Discipline, and Sado-masochism (BDSM) became a focus of his work and many of his self-portraits. People were shaken. The negative reaction to his work is directly related to these themes. I think it is interesting to question why these themes are so threatening, and why the most common reaction to his work during this period is that it is disturbing, sick, and deviant.
Mapplethorpe’s growing reputation as a celebrity photographer also gave a wider audience to his work. His artistic vision became a real threat to conservative society, and he had to fight many people who accepted his brilliance as a photographer but could not understand what he chose to photograph, or why.
His work called the world into a dialogue about the powerful nature of Art and the body, places of silence, of longing, and the power of expression, infused with the language of non-verbal image.