It wasn’t a leatherman, a naked man, or a man in a polyester suit that was the subject of Robert Mapplethorpe’s first photograph — it was his eldest sister Nancy posing elegantly outside the family home in Floral Park, New York. Many more women would sit for Mapplethorpe — a subject that would not be his most infamous but arguably the most enduring of his career.
Mapplethorpe’s exceptional self-portraits, statue-like male nudes, erotic orchids, and the notorious ‘X Portfolio’ are what garner much of the art world’s attention but they aren’t the whole Mapplethorpe photographic story. That story must include women.
Mapplethorpe was a boy when he took those pictures of his sister, then soon after he put down the camera. At just 16 years of age he went to study fine arts at the Pratt Institute, focussing on drawing, painting, collage, and various drugs. A self-confessed art snob, he believed photography to be a lesser art form.
Yet the boy who dismissed photography would become the man who helped transform it from art’s late arrival to the respected medium it is today. Mapplethorpe’s photographs are among the most recognised and wanted in the art world, featuring some of the most talented and commanding women of his era.
Paul Martineau is the associate curator in the Department of Photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, which houses the Robert Mapplethorpe Archive. He says whether male or female, Mapplethorpe’s interactions with others depended on individual personalities and physical attributes: “Lydia Cheng was the ideal female body, but he didn’t photograph her face, while Dovanna Pagowski described having a sort of spiritual connection to Mapplethorpe that allowed them to work together without speaking. Mapplethorpe operated on an intuitive level and, perhaps, women responded more readily to that than most men”.
The connection and trust between artist and model is evident in many of Mapplethorpe’s photographs. His female subjects are shown with a certain power and elegance, and never presented as meek and mild. Still, these photographs are often overshadowed by his brutally-intimate sex photos, with the exception of those of Patti Smith and Lisa Lyon.
The photographs of Patti Smith were the ones that stood out for me when I was a 15 year old in rural Australia and my high school photography teacher introduced me to Mapplethorpe through the photobook ‘Some Women’. “Who is she?” I asked, wondering both who she was, and who she was to the artist. “A famous rock singer, and his muse” my teacher replied. It was clear Mapplethorpe was fascinated with her. And with just one book, I was fascinated with him.
In her introduction for that book, author Joan Didion wrote that the women Mapplethorpe photographed “are women who know how to make their way in the world… they are women who know a lot of things”. Patti Smith was all that. Mapplethorpe saved the photographs of her for the final pages, maybe as a reminder of who it was with that his serious artistic exploration of photography began. One of his best-known photographs is of Smith on the album cover of ‘Horses’ — a black and white photo, her in shirt and loose tie, jacket over shoulder. It would go on to be one of the most iconic music album covers of all time, for one of the greatest albums of all time. Theirs was a partnership of not only life and love, but also art.
“It is important to remember that Mapplethorpe’s photographs of women were collaborative images, less about objectification of the female face and body than a mutual interaction and commitment to capturing a particular moment”, says Britt Salvesen, curator and department head, Wallis Annenberg Photography Department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which co-curated ‘Mapplethorpe: the perfect medium’ with the Getty Museum in 2016.
“In addition to his commissioned portraits of women, which established a dramatic yet delicate ideal of beauty for the female face, Mapplethorpe also explored gender ambiguity in two extended photographic collaborations with Patti Smith and Lisa Lyon. Smith and Lyon, in different ways, played with gender ambiguity and androgyny and enjoyed performing for Mapplethorpe’s camera,” says Salvesen.
Lyon was the first female world champion body builder and an art graduate from UCLA, and her own knowledge and interest in art was perhaps just as valuable to Mapplethorpe photographic projects as her exceptional physique. Her motivation to work with Mapplethorpe was to explore the range of ways of viewing women and the multiple ideas of identity. As a subject, Lyon is just as convincing playing in the 24 Bond Street Manhattan studio dress-up box with hats and gowns, as striding naked out of the ocean like a goddess.
Many women had been photographed naked for fine art long before Mapplethorpe photographed Lyon but few had bodies that conveyed strength, power and confidence. Showing a muscular naked woman in fine art was a revolutionary act for the time.
However, the women he photographed didn’t only possess artistic or physical power. Some had intellectual, financial, societal or sexual power. Like almost all photographers, Mapplethorpe captured what he loved, and for him, that was beauty and the act of revealing to the world things it hadn’t viewed before.
“Robert Mapplethorpe’s way to interpret me was totally different than any other photographer” said Gloria, Princess von Thurn und Taxis in the 2016 documentary ‘Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures’. The German businesswoman and artist known for her eccentric fashion and hairstyles was photographed by Mapplethorpe with simplicity — hair smoothed flat and wearing a string of pearls on bare shoulders. In the same documentary, actress Brooke Shields recalled sitting for him when she was 23 years old and how he depicted her beyond her famously youthful surface: “He was the first photographer to photograph me completely in profile… he was the only one… the profile was just so much more soul-baring”. Collaborating with his subjects, in both portraits Mapplethorpe had caught a beauty not yet seen.
Unashamedly obsessed with beauty, Mapplethorpe found it in women of all ages, sizes and backgrounds, and showed that a woman did not have to be conventional to be presented as classical. Mapplethorpe photographed the people in his world, and that world included New York socialites, dominatrices, bodybuilders, mothers with their children, artists, and heroin addicts. Women in Mapplethorpe’s photographs collectively highlight the diverse ways and forms that women were, and could be.
“Look at the pictures” an outraged Senator Jessie Helms trumpeted on the floor of the United States Senate in the 1980s, waving copies of Mapplethorpe photos that would be evidence in the country’s first obscenity trial for art. I say certainly look at those pictures, and take some extra time to look at the women too. From the Floral Park front yard, to the Manhattan studio, the women are Mapplethorpe’s luminous stars.