Six gorgeous photos that show why Robert Mapplethorpe was a modern Michelangelo
Robert Mapplethorpe was photography’s biggest rebel. He shot to fame in the mid-’70s, documenting the beauty he found in New York’s queer scene and underground BDSM clubs. Much of his provocative large-scale black-and-white portraiture took on similarly risqué themes, spurring conservative politicians and anti-pornography organizations to try shutting down his exhibitions.
Today, Mapplethorpe is celebrated as a champion of LGBT liberation: his work was among the earliest erotic queer photography to be recognized as highbrow art. He incorporated his art history knowledge into each image, often drawing influence from famous Greek sculptors and Renaissance painters—some of his subjects resemble Michelangelo’s David, if David wore leather.
For this year’s Contact festival, the Olga Korper Gallery is showing 45 of Mapplethorpe’s works that capture the fluidity of gender, sex and beauty. Here’s a sneak peek at the exhibit.
Lisa Lyon—the first-ever Women’s World Pro Bodybuilding champion—was one of Mapplethorpe’s muses. They collaborated on a handful of projects in the ’80s, including a portrait series that eventually became a book, Lady: Lisa Lyon. Gender is a major theme in a lot of Mapplethorpe’s work, and his photographs of Lyon depict stereotypical femininity alongside rippling muscles and body hair.
Mapplethorpe’s lifelong friend, lover and collaborator Patti Smith was one of his most photographed subjects. The two met in their 20s—both were fleeing religious families—and lived together in 1969. They shared a room in New York’s Chelsea Hotel, which famously allowed its tenants to exchange their art for free rent. This portrait was taken in 1988, just a year before Mapplethorpe died from AIDS.
Mapplethorpe was known for his celebrity portraits, but he also took pictures of architects, socialites, porn stars and anyone else he found interesting. Many of his subjects were close friends, like this portrait of Claudia Sommers, taken in 1980.
Mapplethorpe’s more notable subjects included Arnold Schwarzenegger, Philip Glass and Bill King (shown above).
Mapplethorpe also took sensual photographs of flowers. His nature photography is a major contrast to his usual leather- and chain-clad subjects, and critics praised his ability to bring sex appeal to any subject—no matter how ordinary it may seem.
Mapplethorpe once said that if he’d been born 100 years earlier, he probably would have been a sculptor. Instead, he incorporates elements of classic Greek sculptures into his work by using similar poses and emphasizing the curves and muscles of the body.