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Robert Mapplethorpe (November 4, 1946 – March 9, 1989) was an Americanmarker photographer, known for his large-scale, highly stylized black and white portraits, photos of flowers and naked men. The frank, homosexual eroticism of some of the work of his middle period triggered a more general controversy about the public funding of artworks.


Mapplethorpe was born and grew up as a Roman Catholic of English and Irish heritage in Our Lady of the Snows Parish in Floral Park, Queens, New York. He studied for a B.F.A. from the Pratt Institutemarker in Brooklynmarker, where he majored in graphic arts, though he dropped out in 1969 before finishing his degree.

Mapplethorpe took his first photographs soon thereafter using a Polaroid camera. In the mid-1970s, he acquired a Hasselblad medium-format camera and began taking photographs of a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, including artists, composers, and socialites. In the 1980s he refined his aesthetic, photographing statuesque male and female nudes, delicate flower still lifes, and highly formal portraits of artists and celebrities. Mapplethorpe's first studio was at 24 Bond Street in Manhattan. In the 1980s Sam Wagstaff gave him $500,000 to buy the top-floor loft at 35 West 23rd Street, where he lived and had his shooting space. He kept the Bond Street loft as his darkroom.

Mapplethorpe died on the morning of March 9, 1989, in a Bostonmarker, Massachusettsmarker hospital from complications arising from AIDS; he was 42 years old. His ashes were buried in Queensmarker, New Yorkmarker, in his mother's grave, marked 'Maxey'.

Nearly a year before his death, the ailing Mapplethorpe helped found the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, Inc. His vision for the Foundation was that it would be "the appropriate vehicle to protect his work, to advance his creative vision, and to promote the causes he cared about". Since his death, the Foundation has not only functioned as his official estate and helped promote his work throughout the world, it has also raised and donated millions of dollars to fund medical research in the fight against AIDS and HIV infection.


Mapplethorpe worked primarily in the studio, particularly towards the end of his career. Common subjects include flowers, especially orchids and calla lilies; celebrities, including Andy Warhol, Deborah Harry, Richard Gere, Peter Gabriel, Grace Jones, and Patti Smith (a Patti Smith portrait from 1986 recalls Albrecht Dürer's 1500 self-portrait); homoerotic and BDSM acts (including Coprophagia), and classical nudes. Mapplethorpe's X Portfolio series sparked national attention in the early 1990s when it was included in The Perfect Moment, a traveling exhibition funded by National Endowment for the Arts. The portfolio includes some of Mapplethorpe's most explicit imagery, including a self-portrait with a bullwhip inserted in his anus.Though his work had been regularly displayed in publicly funded exhibitions, conservative and religious organizations, such as the American Family Association seized on this exhibition to vocally oppose government support for what they called "nothing more than the sensational presentation of potentially obscene material." As a result, Mapplethorpe became something of a cause celebre for both sides of the American Culture war. The installation of The Perfect Moment in Cincinnatimarker resulted in the unsuccessful prosecution of the Contemporary Arts Centermarker of Cincinnati and its director, Dennis Barrie, on charges of "pandering obscenity".

His sexually-charged photographs of black men have been criticized as exploitative. Such criticism was the subject of a work by American conceptual artist Glenn Ligon, Notes on the Margins of the Black Book (1991-1993). Ligon juxtaposes several of Mapplethorpe's most iconic images of black men appropriated from the 1988 publication, Black Book, with various critical texts to complicate the racial undertones of the imagery.

Corcoran Scandal

In June 1989, pop artist Lowell Blair Nesbitt became involved with a scandal involving Mapplethorpe's work. The Corcoran Gallery of Artmarker in Washington D.C. had agreed to host a traveling solo exhibit of Mapplethorpe's works, without making a stipulation as to what type of subject matter would be used. Mapplethorpe decided to show a new series that he had explored shortly before his death, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment curated by Janet Kardon of the Institute of Contemporary Art. The hierarchy of the Corcoran and several members of Congress were horrified when the works were revealed to them, and the museum refused to go forth with the exhibit. It was at this time that Nesbitt, a long-time friend of Mapplethorpe, revealed that he had a $1.5 million bequest to the museum in his will. Nesbitt publicly promised that if the museum refused to host the exhibition he would revoke his bequest. The Corcoran refused and Nesbitt bequeathed the money to the Phillips Collectionmarker instead.

After the Corcoran refused the Mapplethorpe exhibition, the underwriters of the exhibition went to the nonprofit Washington Project for the Arts, which showed the controversial images in its own space from July 21 - August 13, 1989, to large crowds.

UCE Controversy

In 1998, the University of Central Englandmarker was involved in a controversy when a book by Mapplethorpe was confiscated. A final year undergraduate student was writing a paper on the work of Robert Mapplethorpe and intended to illustrate the paper with a few photographs. She took the photographs to the local chemist to be developed and the chemist informed West Midlands Police because of the unusual nature of the images. The police confiscated the library book from the student and informed the university that the book would have to be destroyed. If the university agreed to the destruction, no further action would be taken.

The book in question was Mapplethorpe, published by Jonathan Cape 1992. The university Vice-Chancellor, Dr Peter Knight, supported by the Senate took the view that the book was a legitimate book for the university library to hold and that the action of the police was a serious infringement of academic freedom. The Vice-Chancellor was interviewed by the police, under caution, with a view to prosecution under the terms of the Obscene Publications Act. This Act defines obscenity as material that is likely to deprave and corrupt. It was used unsuccessfully in the famous Lady Chatterley's Lover trial. Curiously the police were not particularly interested in some of the more notorious images which could have been covered by other legislation. They focused on one particular image, 'Jim and Tom, Sausalito 1977,' which depicts one man urinating into the mouth of another.

After the interview with the Vice-Chancellor a file was sent to the Crown Prosecution Service as the Director of Public Prosecutions has to take the decision as to whether or not to proceed with a trial. After a delay of about six months the affair came to an end when Dr Knight was informed by the DPP that no action would be taken as 'there was insufficient evidence to support a successful prosecution on this occasion'. The original book was returned, in a slightly tattered state, and restored to the university library.


In 1996, Patti Smith wrote a book The Coral Sea dedicated to Mapplethorpe.

In September, 1999, Arena Editions published Pictures, a monograph that reintroduced Mapplethorpe's sex pictures. In 2000, Pictures was seized by two South Australian plain-clothes detectives from an Adelaide bookshop in the belief that the book breached indecency and obscenity laws. Police sent the book to the Canberra based Office of Film and Literature Classification after the state Attorney-General's Department deftly decided not to get involved in the mounting publicity storm. Eventually, the OFLC board agreed unanimously that the book, imported from the US, should remain freely available and unclassified.

In May, 2001, Arena Editions published Autoportrait, a collection of black and white Polaroid self-portraits that Mapplethorpe took between 1971 and 1973. This was the first time these early works became available for widespread viewing since the 1970s.

In 2006, a Mapplethorpe print of Andy Warhol was auctioned for $643,200, making it the 9th most expensive photograph ever sold.

In May, 2007, American writer, director, and producer James Crump directed the documentary film Black White + Gray, which premiered at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival. It explores the influence Mapplethorpe, curator Sam Wagstaff, and musician/poet Patti Smith had on the 1970s art scene in New York City.

In September, 2007, Prestel published Mapplethorpe:Polaroids, a collection of 183 of approximately 1,500 existing Mapplethorpe polaroids. This book accompanies an exhibition by the Whitney Museum of American Artmarker in May 2008.

See also


  • Patricia Morrisroe (1995) Robert Mapplethorpe: A Biography (Papermac: London and New York)

  • Arthur C. Danto (1996) Playing with the Edge: the Photographic Achievement of Robert Mapplethorpe (University of California Press: London and Los Angeles)

  • Gary Banham (2002) "Mapplethorpe, Duchamp and the Ends of Photography" Angelaki 7.1

  • Mark Jarzombek. "The Mapplethorpe Trial and the Paradox of its Formalist and Liberal Defense: Sights of Contention," AppendX, No. 2 (Spring 1994), 58-81

  • Allen Ellenzweig (1992), "The Homoerotic Photograph: Male Images from Durieu/Delacroix to Mapplethorpe" (New York: Columbia University Press), ISBN 0231075367


  1. Glueck, Grace. "Fallen Angel", The New York Times, June 25, 1995. Accessed October 14, 2007. "Growing up in a blue-collar precinct of Floral Park and steeped in Catholicism, Mapplethorpe developed -- to his alarm -- an adolescent interest in gay pornographic magazines.... So at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where his father had studied engineering and Robert majored in graphic arts (but stopped short of getting a degree)..."
  2. Haggerty, George. "Gay histories and cultures"
  3. Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation website
  6. Self-Portrait (From The X Portfolio)
  7. Untitled (Self Portrait)
  8. Robert Mapplethorpe's extraordinary vision
  9. Mapplethorpe's Photos Now an F.C.C. Issue - New York Times
  10. Imaging Sadomasochism: Robert Mapplethorpe and the Masquerade of Photography
  11. Mapplethorpe, Robert (1946-1989)
  12. Imperfect Moments: Mapplethorpe and Censorship Twenty Years Later, Institute of Contemporary Art
  13. The Sensitive Society, James F. Fitzpatrick, FCLJ Vol 47 No 2
  14. Corcoran Cut From Painter's Will;Lowell Nesbitt's Mapplethorpe Protest
  15. UCE pages on the Mapplethorpe controversy

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