Surfaces and Strategies – In Another’s Shoes
“I had the idea of taking sexual images and doing it a little differently than it had been done before – having a formalist approach to it all.”
– Robert Mapplethorpe
(Robert Mapplethorpe Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works 2017)
I decided it would be fun and interesting to re-stage a Mapplethorpe nude – Dennis with Flowers, 1983.
Mapplethorpe is remembered predominantly for his traditional black and white photographs. His photographs reveal his apparent fascination with the black male nude. His photographs aestheticised the male nude and made the viewing of these images more acceptable. Mapplethorpe treats the male nude body in the same way as he treats flowers in his photographs. Both are beautifully photographed; his compositions elegant and formal. His work was presented in legitimate galleries, which contributed to making the images palatable to the public, yet still not acceptable outside gallery walls. Today, this is still the same.
I chose to work in a studio to re-stage the image. My intention was produce my own variation of Mapplethorpe’s image. Like Mapplethorpe, I put on my formalist hat when recreating this image. I was very interested in getting the composition and sculptural aspects of the image right. Colour and balance were also key factors in how I recreated the photograph.
In Mapplethorpe’s image, the flowers are erect and thrusting out towards the edge of the frame. They can be seen to be sexually powerful and assertive in his image. The penis, in contrast, is limp and non-erect, almost vulnerable in its portrayal. I wanted to maintain this vulnerability without the flowers demonstrating the same kind of maleness they have in Mapplethorpe’s image. My intent was that both the penis and flowers would illustrate an element of delicacy. For this reason, I deliberately chose to change the flowers to ones that had a more delicate feel to them.
I also decided not to use the same type of model as Mapplethorpe did. Rather than use a young Nubian model, I chose to use an older white model. I wanted to steer clear of exoticising the black male and reducing him to a mere sexual object. I set out to challenge the notion of the culture of youth and the many nude images we can see of younger men. Older men tend not to be portrayed in this way. My intent was not to objectify the model in the same way that Mapplethorpe had.
My model has a comfortable gaze and engagement with the viewer. In contrast, the gaze of Dennis in Mapplethorpe’s image is less comfortable. This may have a lot to do with the staging and process of capturing the image.
The contact sheet (below) for the shoot shows that many variants of the pose were tried out. I finally decided on a more closed post than that chosen by Mapplethorpe. I never set out to directly copy the image, but to produce my own version of it.
Figure 1: Sutherst 2017
I originally chose an obvious monochrome edit, but then re-edited to produce a colour version. Discussing with other cohort members and seeking their input, I finally decided on the mixed version shown in the image below. The flowers are less distracting in muted tones and the eyes have been brightened to draw you into the image through his eyes. The debate of monotone versus colour allowed me to give my image a more updated feel. The added colour to the flowers give the image a more contemporary feel.
Figure 2: Sutherst 2017
I have shown the images on a gallery wall space as this is where they are likely to be viewed. It is a shame that society still does not see the male nude as acceptable viewing except when in a gallery context. We still have a lot to do to change this.
Figure 3: Mapplethorpe. Dennis with Flowers. 1983 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. and Sutherst. 2017
Robert Mapplethorpe Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works. 2017. The Art Story [online]. Available at: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-mapplethorpe-robert.htm [accessed 04 June 2017].
Figure 3: Mapplethorpe, R. From: Robert Mapplethorpe Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works. 2017. The Art Story [online]. Available at: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-mapplethorpe-robert.htm [accessed 04 June 2017].