Robert Mapplethorpe

Bad Boy Makes Good: An Interview with Robert Mapplethorpe

By Janis Bultman

Published in Darkroom Photography, July 1988 and in Legacies: Interviews with Masters of Photography from Darkroom Photography Magazine, 2018.
Robert Mapplethorpe, 1982, by Kurt Fischback
Robert Mapplethorpe, 1982, by Kurt Edward Fishback

There are signs of encroaching prosperity on New York City’s Bond Street. Crumbling tenements crisscrossed with rusting fire escapes shoulder up to once-industrial loft buildings in various stages of renovation. For years, dance studios, parking lots, storefront theater groups, and struggling artists quietly coexisted in this fringe neighborhood. But these days, drifters from the nearby Bowery missions share the sidewalk with well-healed speculators, drawn to the street because of its closeness to trendy SoHo, a few blocks south.

“Mapplethorpe” reads the nameplate next to a steel door on a tenement as yet untouched by progress. Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe used to live here. Now, he lives on 23rd Street but maintains this Bond Street address to attend to business and meet with clients, curators, and reporters. For Mapplethorpe, fortune was slow to follow the fame he achieved in the early seventies when his pictures of underground sexuality shocked the art world. But for him too, prosperity has at long last arrived.

One of Mapplethorpe’s three assistants descends in the rattling freight elevator that takes us up to a long, dim loft. The low light here transforms everything to tones of black-and-white. Mapplethorpe, usually sighted wearing black, is out of uniform. Today, he’s dressed in neutral tones. Gone is the skull jewelry reporters unfailingly noted a few years back. There’s also no sign of the photographs that launched his notoriety and, with his visible membership in the nocturnal downtown demimonde, caused the media to dub him “the bad boy of photography.”

That image is fading, mellowing with time and hard-won success. At 41, Mapplethorpe is acclaimed as one of the most outstanding artists of his generation. He’s a current favorite of purveyors of both art and commercial photography. He exhibits continually around the world, and his last New York show, at Robert Miller Gallery, sold out. He takes as many commercial assignments as he can handle. “I’m really proud of the stuff I do commercially,” he says. He’s generally given creative license, and it’s not hard to recognize his signature style on ads and editorial pages in Vanity Fair, Interview, Stern, Vogue, and House & Garden. Rose’s Lime Juice recruited him for its latest ad campaign. This time, he appears on the other side of the camera. Paired with photographer Norman Parkinson, who represents a traditional/conservative talent, Mapplethorpe represents the downtown artist who has achieved an uptown success.

Working in black-and-white, Mapplethorpe has consistently explored three broad subjects—nudes, portraits and still lifes—rendering each with the technical perfection that is his hallmark. Drawn to the shadows more than to the light, he focuses on secret, dark, and dangerous qualities. His images are almost always still, frozen in time. Nothing moves. He likes to give his pictures an “edge”—even his flowers. He told an interviewer earlier this year, “Some of [the flowers] have a sort of sinister side…a certain edge, a creepy quality.”

Mapplethorpe’s talent has always had its champions; John McKendry at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was an early mentor. But many pundits were slow to find words of praise. The nudes, which dared to illustrate sexual/social taboos and a more than documentary fascination with them, triggered moral outrage in many viewers. Critics found much to revile in his pornographic Polaroids: studies of the S&M scene and heterosexual and homosexual couples engaged in sexual acts. His pictures of nude black men, published in one of his books, Black Males: Power and Beauty, sparked angry accusations that he was promoting destructive racial stereotypes. “Man in a Polyester Suit, 1980,” the torso of a dressed black male with his penis showing, has become the best known among these. Declaimers called his work tasteless and exploitative. In 1983, The New York Times described an exhibit as “undeniably and intentionally distasteful…chic, narcissistic exhibitionism.”

Mapplethorpe says he was unprepared for such vehement criticism. He claims he chose his subjects because he found them attractive. Exploitation was neither intended by him nor perceived by them. He just wanted to make pictures that had never been done before. “Nobody with a real aesthetic had ever gone into that area. I thought people’s eyes would be opened, because I always showed them in conjunction with the other pictures. I’d have a picture of fruit or flowers next to a picture of sexuality next to a portrait of someone socially prominent. My intent was to open people’s eyes, get them to realize anything can be acceptable. It’s not what it is; it’s the way it’s photographed. But it made people hate the flowers and hate the people in the pictures. I didn’t intend that at all.”

Still, Mapplethorpe did not stop showing erotic themes and that made some wonder if he was purposefully choosing controversial subjects that would ensure he would be remembered. Mapplethorpe denies it. What about his “bad boy” image? Is it an image that appeals to him? “Not really. It’s cute. I’ve done exactly what I wanted to do, and if that’s being bad….” He trails off.

But he did little to discourage the bad boy image. For interviews, he always dressed in black. He talked incessantly about sex. In self-portraits that invite speculation about his personal life, he poses in lipstick and makeup, wearing a black leather jacket and toting a machine gun, as a devil with horns, and a demon with a whiptail. Why the getup? “Oh, just something to do,” says Mapplethorpe now. “Periodically, I have a show and people want pictures of me, so I just do a self-portrait. It’s as simple as that. I don’t like to repeat myself. I try to come up with some kind of gimmick that I think is interesting.”

Mapplethorpe tells interviewers about his distaste for light, mentioning that when he lived with rock-poet Patti Smith at the Chelsea Hotel, he had a back section with no window, where it was completely dark. “You didn’t know what time of day it was. I can live that way.” Bruce Chatwin’s preface to Mapplethorpe’s 1983 book Lady, featuring bodybuilder Lisa Lyon, refers to Mapplethorpe’s “night-biased” world. Is he still a night person? “At one time more than now,” he says mildly. “I basically stay up late and get up late.”

What’s known about Mapplethorpe is only partially illuminating. He grew up in Floral Park, Long Island, and studied painting and sculpture at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Raised as a Catholic, he says the church definitely influenced his work and claims to have an abiding fascination with Catholic ritual. When he left Pratt, he moved in with Smith and lived with her for seven years.

These days he’s not inclined to elaborate on his past. Anyone who wants to know him can simply study his photographs; his work, he says, “is quite autobiographical. I’m pretty honest and I think the pictures say a lot about me. The experience is more important than the photograph.”

Mapplethorpe likes to photograph those with whom he most enjoys spending his time. For him, the photo session itself is on a par with the finished image. Although he has taken beautiful portraits of children, he quickly admits they’re not his favorite subjects. When working in portraiture, Mapplethorpe’s preferred subjects are celebrities. He says he’s just not inspired by “plain people.” They don’t interest him, perhaps because he already knows what they’re like. He grew up with and away from plain people, he says.

During a sitting with an inspiring subject, Mapplethorpe says a kind of magic takes place—a spark that ignites a powerful communion between photographer and subject. In 1983, he told the British magazine The Face that it was “sort of abstract and parallel to drugs where you lose yourself in this relationship between the subject and the self.”

The portraits, usually undertaken as editorial projects, are slow to sell. Among his imagery, the bestsellers are his still lifes, especially the flowers, which are favorites among corporate buyers. The “edge” to these still lifes may come from the fact that he doesn’t like flowers. But once he starts, he can get excited about photographing them, he says.

Mapplethorpe has published several books, including Certain People: A Book of Portraits and Black Males: Power and Beauty. Lady, which for Mapplethorpe represents a rare focus on the female form, was conceived as a commercial venture at a time when his finances were shaky. Photo books are rarely bestsellers. The project just barely broke even.

While his choice of subjects speak of his preoccupations at different times of his life, the technical precision of his prints and his faithfulness to black-and-white is also revealing. Whether he’s photographing flowers, faces, or phalluses, Mapplethorpe’s pictures share an uncommon obsession with every detail of composition and printing.

For several years, much of the task of printing has fallen to Tom Baril. He prints black-and-white silver images for Mapplethorpe and knows that the artist is a fanatic about all the lights, shadows, hot spots, and every possible detail being revealed in the print. Baril describes the printing process as standard and archival, with few darkroom tricks beyond perhaps diffusing the images through a sheet of frosted glass placed under the enlarger.

Mapplethorpe’s black-and-white work is shot on Kodak T-Max 100 and developed in D-76 or FG-7. Baril feels that the FG-7 gives a somewhat better grain structure. All of the black-and-white prints are made in a custom darkroom equipped with an Omega D-5 enlarger, an Aristo cold-light head, and Rodagon lenses. The majority of his prints are made on Kodak Polyfiber paper N surface, with darker-skinned subjects printed on Agfa Portriga 118 matte surface. The paper is developed in Kodak Ektaflo developer and fixed and washed using Heico fix and washing aid. All black-and-white prints are toned in selenium for appearance and permanence.

Mapplethorpe admits to being a perfectionist. “I take a whole roll of the same image. Placement and cropping are really important. I don’t want anything out of place. That’s the way I am about how I arrange things where I live, too. I would like to think everything is perfect. I’m not somebody who takes photographs about chance. I’m not a street photographer. I couldn’t be further removed.” He usually shoots with a Halleslblad equipped with 120mm or 150mm lenses and sometimes with a Linhof. Most of his work is done in a studio and rarely with natural light. He is a minimalist.

Black-and-white preempted his attention for years both because it is relatively inexpensive and infinitely easier to control than color. Now that he can afford it, he has dye transfer prints made for his color work. They’re expensive but allow him greater control for changing or correcting color. His foray into color is one of several ways in which the artist has been presenting himself with new challenges that are more aesthetic and technical than subjective. These also include experiments with oversized photogravures and platinum printing on canvas, linen, and silk. “I want to see something I’ve never seen before,” he says.

Mapplethorpe also designs furniture and stage sets as well as the frames in which his photographs are exhibited in New York. “I never intended to be a photographer,” he says “I was just interested in making a statement about the time I was living in.” He picked up a camera when he found that he couldn’t sit still long enough to paint representational imagery. “I was interested in using photography to make an art statement, and I set out to use it in a way that it had never been used before.”

At first, Mapplethorpe developed his style unencumbered by influences. He did not study photography in school and believes his initial ignorance of his predecessors worked to his advantage. “The first Polaroids I ever took—there’s a style there. It’s my own. I think one of the problems a lot of people have is that they see too much and they know too much. They never really see for themselves.”

His friendship with John McKendry inspired him to begin looking at the work of other photographers, and he began amassing his own collection after meeting Sam Wagstaff in 1973. Both men undertook to educate themselves in the history of photography together. “I just started taking pictures, developed a way of looking, and then started looking at the history of photography. I think that of all the photographers who’ve existed, certainly in this century, Man Ray is the most important because he kicked around photography in a way that hadn’t been done before. He was more than a photographer. He and the portrait photographer Nadar influence my work in a subconscious way. But I think in the end I came up with a signature that’s my own.”

“Coming of age during the pop-art movement also had its effect,” he concurs. He says he approaches his subjects and the making of art in general without prejudice.

Mapplethorpe has long been a celebrity in his own right, at least in New York City. As his fame spreads, and sales accrue, his image is softening. It might be the cautious orchestration of a new upscale image. As he says, he likes to be in control, likes everything to be perfect. But then too, time mellows us. We grow out of certain obsessions. The fast pace of youth slows naturally—helped in the eighties by fear of AIDS. It has affected his work subconsciously, Mapplethorpe says. “The kinds of pictures I took in the seventies I wouldn’t take today, because of AIDS and also because I’ve done them already.”

Whatever the motive, or lack of one, for his reserve today, the outcome is the same: Our attention is deflected from the man to his work. That’s where he wants it. Rightfully so.

© 1988, 2015, 2018 Janis Bultman

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