Robert Mapplethorpe

Untitled (Self-Portrait), 1973/75
Untitled, 1974
Untitled (Peter Berlin), c. 1974
Untitled (Patti Smith), 1973/75

Robert Mapplethorpe (born November 4, 1946 in Queens, New York, US − died March 9, 1989 in Boston, US) is today considered one of the most famous photographers of the 20th century. With his still lifes, images of flowers, as well as dark photographs of New York’s underground scene, Robert Mapplethorpe created a visual oeuvre that is now exhibited in the world’s most prestigious museums.
At the beginning of his career, Mapplethorpe initially experimented with various materials in the form of mixed-media collages, but then increasingly focused on Polaroid photography. In the early 1970s, Polaroids were cheap, and it was the only camera he owned at the time. Mapplethorpe began taking regular Polaroids of his family, friends, and public figures. He focused on intimate, sexually charged images that quickly attracted attention and always shocked the public. Later, he combined classic nudes with still lifes and portraits. They all epitomize Mapplethorpe’s quest for aesthetic perfection. “Under Mapplethorpe’s gaze, flowers lose their innocence, sexuality is stylized into still life.”[1] The erotic drama and the clarity of composition, these are the poles and quintessence of his work.[2]
While the later photographs are characterized by a technically masterful execution, the early Polaroids provide a glimpse into Mapplethorpe’s artistic development and his initial exploration of intimacy, composition, structure, and design.
In 1973, Robert Mapplethorpe had his first solo exhibition at the Light Gallery in New York City, titled Polaroids. Two years later, he started using a Hasselblad medium format camera. His subjects were his circle of friends and acquaintances − artists, musicians, celebrities, porn stars, and members of the S&M scene, on which he increasingly focused in the 1980s, as he did on the classical, formal beauty of a subject, as exemplified by his magnificent flower images.
Robert Mapplethorpe also introduced and refined various techniques and formats, including 20″ x 24″ color Polaroids, photogravures, platinum prints on paper and linen, Cibachrome, and dye transfer prints.
In 1986, Mapplethorpe was diagnosed with AIDS. The Whitney Museum of American Art presented the first major retrospective of his work in an American museum in 1988, a year before his death.

[1] (Status: 20 September 2022)

[2] Ibid.

Polaroid book

Robert Mapplethorpe. Polaroids
by Sylvia Wolf
Prestel, 2013
ISBN 978-3-7913-4870-4