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  • Writer's pictureJo Sutherst

Surfaces and Strategies – Considering Other Photographers – Mapplethorpe

“I’m looking for perfections in form. I do that with portraits. I do it with cocks. I do it with flowers. It’s not different from one subject to the next. I am trying to capture what could be sculpture.”

– Mapplethorpe (Robert Mapplethorpe Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works 2017)


Figure 1: Mapplethorpe. Charles Bowman / Torso. 1980


Figure 2: Mapplethorpe. Dennis. 1978

Mapplethorpe was one of the most significant American photographers of the 1970s and ’80s.  His portfolio of work is both powerful and provocative.

Researching his work, I visited his biography webpage.  Here it explained that “In the late 70s, Mapplethorpe grew increasingly interested in documenting the New York S & M scene. The resulting photographs are shocking for their content and remarkable for their technical and formal mastery. Mapplethorpe told ARTnews in late 1988, ‘I don’t like that particular word ‘shocking.’ I’m looking for the unexpected. I’m looking for things I’ve never seen before … I was in a position to take those pictures. I felt an obligation to do them.’ “(The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation – Biography 2017)

I am drawn to the shapes and textures in Mapplethorpe’s images.  His use of lighting to enhance and define the male form are the main attracting feature for me.

The monochrome images draw the eye of the viewer to the detail in the image.  The almost abstract images are stunningly beautiful and celebrate the male form.  As there are no faces, we as the viewer, are free to objectify the form with no sense of guilt that can come with a shot that contains the face.

Figures 3-5: Mapplethorpe


Figure 6: Mapplethorpe, Patrice, N.Y.C. 1977

Some of Mapplethorpe’s work is shocking (not shown here) and has at times been considered indecent. These images are ones containing men in sadomasochistic poses.

Because Mapplethorpe chose to produce his work as photographs, the work appears more shocking to the viewer. The depiction of gay men and the S&M scene are not what we, as a viewer, normally expect to see.  The work was shocking when it was produced and still evokes that reaction from some quarters today.


Figure 7: Mapplethorpe. Joe, N.Y.C. 1978.

But why is this still shocking today?  In an age where we can view all manner of graphic scenes on the internet, surely we should be more tolerant and accepting of these images.

I feel that this shows how closed-minded we are about lifestyles other than our own.  For years, we have been subjected to naked images of women and this has been deemed ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’.  This needs to change if we are to progress as a harmonious and accepting society.  I intend my work to go someway towards changing these old fashioned, closed-minded opinions.


Robert Mapplethorpe Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works. 2017. The Art Story [online]. Available at: [accessed 11 May 2017].

The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation – Biography. 2017. [online]. Available at: [accessed 11 May 2017].


Figures 1 – 5: The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation – Male Nudes. 2017. [online]. Available at: [accessed 11 May 2017].

Figures 6 – 7: Penises and Parrot Tulips: Robert Mapplethorpe’s Most Iconic Works. 2017. Creators [online]. Available at: [accessed 11 May 2017].

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