Issue #158  3/15/2009
Photography Book Reviews: Portraits By Mapplethorpe

By Matt Damsker


Catalogue published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name at the Palm Springs Art Museum, Palm Springs, California, Jan. 17 through April 19, 2009; The Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, Arizona, June 27-Sept. 27, 2009; San Jose Museum of Art, San Jose, California, Fall 2010. 104 black-and-white plates; 260 pages; ISBN No. 978-0-9816743-1-5. Information: http://www.psmuseum.org .

By the time he died--as not just another celebrity victim of AIDS in the 1980s, but as an icon of rebel artistry and New York gay culture--Robert Mapplethorpe had managed to shock mainstream sensibilities on one hand and flatter them on another. His fetishistic photographs of black male sexuality coexisted with remarkably sensitive floral portraits that, for all their implicit suggestion, were welcomed at any level of society. In between these polarities, of course, lay the great trove of his formal portraiture--celebrity images of Manhattan trend-setters, taste-makers and performers that are the subject of this exhibition and catalogue, a stellar achievement by curator Gordon Baldwin.

Given Mapplethorpe's persona, his era and the charged nature of his relationships, it's important to note--as Daniel Cornell does in his catalogue essay--that these portraits are deceptively complex studies in fame and the compact between photographer and sitter. Cornell writes that Mapplethorpe "deploys…formality to disclose the sexuality that is usually hidden in portraits, drawing attention to details loaded with sexual codes as, for example, in Smutty [Smith's] provocatively positioned rabbit's foots charm, Udo Kier's framed belt buckle…and the erupting fronds atop the palm tree beside Truman Capote."

Cornell further asserts that these are "erotic portraits, even when the sitters are fully clothed…the power relations in these portrait sessions, whether explicit or not, [is] a matter of trust, which asserts the basic compact between sexual partners."

Indeed, it's clear enough that when, for example, Marianne Faithfull is photographed perched precariously on a balcony ledge, against a black background, with one leg rising provocatively from her dress, a look of vague desperation on her face, that we are witnessing a collaborative psychodrama of a high order. Yet most of the photographs here are less overtly dramatic, and ultimately flatter the sitter in ways that echo classical portraiture, updated for a high-gloss, fast-living, rule-breaking era.

A youthful Iggy Pop, then, his arm raised, cigarette in hand, cropped off-center and so tightly within the frame that we can't tell if he's naked or not, is a study in coiled punk posture, but, as with most of Mapplethorpe's celebrity shots, the neutral backdrop and the flat, cool lighting soften the edge and emphasize Iggy's handsomeness. Even Andy Warhol's freakish mien is idealized, in its way, by Mapplethorpe's flattery (though the two artists were not exactly friends, and Warhol stands against a studio wall in a defensive, distrustful pose). So it is with countless art-star subjects: Robert Rauschenberg portrayed as a kindly, open-handed image of friendship; Keith Haring, in a whimsical/ironic Playboy bunny t-shirt, staring out quizzically, half-seriously; and Patti Smith, who lived with Mapplethorpe in his early days, is a dark angel with expressive hands, fragile limbs and an oracular aura.

These and many others are powerful two-way streets of portraiture, but inevitable there are many ordinary images that don't exactly prove Daniel Cornell's erotic thesis. A 1982 shot of a pensive Glenn Close in profile is pleasant 19th-century stuff, nothing more, while a full-frontal, impassive Norman Mailer is a Roman bust, thick and sculptural and unyielding. But then there's Louise Nevelson, magnificently ravaged in ruffled black, her face uptilted and looming out of the dark like Gloria Swanson ready for her close-up. And Deborah Harry, hair upswept, with tasteful yet impressive décolletage, offers an imperious sidelong glance that dares us to call her Blondie. And the great image of Kathy Acker, covering her face in her hands and covering her breasts at the same time, proves that a well-matched photographer and subject can create a portrait that nonetheless reveals more than it hides.

Ultimately, Mapplethorpe's self-portraits tell their tales most poignantly. He is an intense, craggy-featured persona whose depths we can only guess at, whether expressing his youthful vitality with an out-flung arm that takes up most of the frame, or, in 1988, dying from AIDS yet bravely facing the camera with a death's-head walking stick, his head soft-focused in the enveloping blackness. This catalogue and exhibition is, above all, a celebration of an important artist who defined his era as few others were able to, with uncompromised vision, daring and humanity.

The annotations at the back of the catalogue additionally provide helpful commentary on each photograph, and Gordon Baldwin's essay, "In the Studio," details Mapplethorpe's artistic development and technique with eloquence and erudition. Baldwin goes beyond any boilerplate notions of Mapplethorpe's art, as when he concludes: "The portraits are usually thought to be cool and formal, although their maker believed them simply to be formal. They are certainly no cooler than those of Steichen, another great American twentieth-century portraitist, and they are certainly kinder than those of Avedon. As for warmth, is it not somewhat naive to believe that a photographer can establish and display manifestly cordial relations with such a great variety of types and personalities?"

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005. He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.

(Book publishers, authors and photography galleries/dealers may send review copies to us at: I Photo Central, 258 Inverness Circle, Chalfont, PA 18914. We do not guarantee that we will review all books or catalogues that we receive. Books must be aimed at photography collecting, not how-to books for photographers.)