Robert Mapplethorpe was born in 1946 in a quiet suburb of New York, he was the third of six children. He attended the Pratt institute, a prestigious art, architecture and design school. He majored in graphic arts but dropped out before completing his degree.
He met Patti Smith, a musician, author and poet and they lived together from 1967 to 1972. She was his only female lover and they remained lifelong friends.
Robert’s first works included collages and jewellery which he sold . He acquired a Polaroid camera to incorporate them into his mixed media work. His impatient nature was satisfied by the quick results from this camera.
During this early period, he questioned his religious upbringing and sexual identity. He also experimented with recreational drugs. He became friends with Andy Warhol who had a great influence on him. He lived a bohemian life making art from cheap materials, the relationship with Patti Smith was intense and money was scarce.
In 1971, he met James McKendry, the curator of photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The collection of photos was no doubt an inspiration for Mapplethorpe to take photography as a valid medium for art.
In 1972, he met and art curator called Sam Wagstaff who became his mentor and his lover. Wagstaff gave Robert his “real” camera, a Hasselblad 500. Robert started taking photographs of his entourage, including friends, artists and many famous people. He worked on some commercial projects and around the same time started documenting the New York S&M scene. Wagstaff supported Mapplethorpe financially and introduced him to the glamorous social life of New York.
During the 1970s, Robert Mapplethorpe took his most famous photos of Patti Smith for her debut solo album, Horses. He received recognition and was given assignments for the magazine Interview part owned by Andy Warhol. This enabled him to travel and photograph the rich and famous in the USA and in Europe.
Simultaneously, he continued exploring a darker side of his sexual fantasies. Clubs like the Mine Shaft enabled men to engage in S&M, bondage, role-play, fetish… at a time when homosexuality was a taboo and pretty much forbidden. In 1978, he published “X Portfolio” in which most of the models were men he met at such clubs.
His mature work was tripartite : X for the raw sexual imagery, Y for the floral work and Z for the nude portraits of black men. His X photography was shocking at the time and still remains so today. He later commented : “I don’t like that particular word ‘shocking.’ I’m looking for the unexpected. I’m looking for things I’ve never seen before…I was in a position to take those pictures. I felt an obligation to do them.”
Mapplethorpe’s subject matter evolved to more scultural photos of male and female bodies, but also flowers and some formal portraits. He met a female bodybuilder, Lisa Lyons, in 1979 and they collaborated in many projects. His later experimentations were also in prints and other techniques, like printing on textiles, large platinum prints etc… He was interested in bluring the line between photography, sculpture and painting. He hired assistants for his prints, preferring to give directions rather than prints himself.
In 1986, he was diagnosed with AIDS. One year later, Wagstaff died of AIDS and Warhol died too. Mapplethorpe worked furiously and the Whitney Museum of American art did him the honour of a retrospective of his work in 1988. He died in 1989.
His work continued creating controversy after his death. An exhibition was shut down protests concerning some erotic photographs. Right wing politicians question government funding for the arts and tried to impose restrictions on what was funded. For the first time a museum director was accused (but acquitted) of obscenity.
His legacy lives on through the Robert Mapplethorpe foundation which he created a year before his death to protect his work and promote the causes he cared about.