My favourite photographers - Robert Mapplethorpe


The main issue for some with Robert Mapplethorpe is what he took photographs of. When he set up his camera and people could come and do whatever they felt like in front of it and he would take their picture, they did exactly that. With some fairly shocking results. There are many who think a lot of what he shot was pornography, and some of his images get very close to any kind of definition of that. So it is very much a case of being wary of the content of some of his work, if you are easily offended and find full-on pictures of naked people difficult to look at.

However, taking all that into consideration, I've always thought he was a great photographer. In terms of studio shot black and white, perhaps one of the best ever. His beautiful lighting, often turning the human body into flesh landscapes, is sometimes extroardinary. He did have rather too much to do with the appalling, talentless Patti Smith, who manages to be hopeless at everything she attempts, but seems to get attention just the same, though I guess she was part of the New York scene he inhabited. 

I'm less convinced by his flower and statue shots, and they seem somewhat dull by comparison to his portraits (what wouldn't!!) but overall I'm very much an admirer of his work. Even now this attracts as much controversy and criticism as it ever did and like another of my favourite photographers who I will be writing about next, Bob Carlos Clarke, just his name can send shivers down the spines of some. 

It can be difficult sometimes to separate out the notoriety from the talent and I've personally never been sure whether I like his work because of what he shot or in spite of it. I know that I find much of his photography compelling but will admit it is work that you can't view casually. He certainly knew how to get peoples attention! I've never thought that the capacity to shock was either a measure of artistic talent or a stick to beat it with, but unlike many "art" photographers who have plenty of shock but little talent, Mapplethorpe created almost classical pictures that show an extraordinary focus and ability to get just what he wanted. Though many of the people he photographed and associated with were talentless attention seekers, his images will probably outlast any memory of who they were.

In many ways he is a "difficult" photographer, and if you don't know his work, or haven't heard about it then do be careful when you start looking round the internet for some of his more outrageous images because they can be truly shocking. However, if you bear that in mind then its worth it for one of the best exponents of studio portraiture thats ever pressed a shutter. It depends on your tastes I guess, as to whether you think his work is beautiful or has aesthetic merit or whether you think the more extreme examples are just semi-pornographic (or just pornographic), and I can understand that many might not be able to get past the content of some of the images, but he was a talent and unlike many of the so-called "avant-garde" he never discarded technique and the old-fashioned virtues of composition and craftsmanship to create them. Some of what he chose to put in the two dimensional rectangles he created often isn't for the faint hearted, but I would suggest that he did it in such a unique way that he has created a body of work that deserves to be recognised and yes, applauded. 

Do check him out if you don't know him already and the website at the top of the page is relatively easy going. However as I said there are other images of his that can be found on the internet that are somewhat "different" in approach and content and again I would advise caution if you are easily shocked. He was never bland, never complacent and a lot of his work challenges a lot of people ideas of what its appropriate to photograph. However this never seems to have bothered him and he went his own way until his death. There aren't many like him and I suspect there will never be that many people who will photograph what he photographed and still be regarded as artists. However, I believe he deserves that description, and personally I'm glad he did what he did. Great photography should make us think, and should get a reaction from us. Much of his work rarely fails to do either.

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