Tag Archives: Robert Mapplethorpe

Research point 2

Historically, still life was considered to the lowest ranked genre within art. Up to the 20th century art was often ranked according to its perceived cultural value. This ranking tended to follow the hierarchy developed by Andre Felibien (1619-1695). History (or mythological) paintings ranked highest, followed by portraiture (including self-portraits), genre (scenes showing everyday life), landscape, then still life. Still life was considered lowly because it was ‘devoid of human figures and more demonstrative of artistic skill than imagination and intellect’ (Huntsman, 2016). The images were often small and hung in private spaces rather than on grand public display. However, there have been multiple examples of famous still life paintings over the years ranging from the vanitas images of the early Dutch and Flemish artists to Frida Kahlo’s Viva la Vida, painted in the last year of her life. Still life continues to be a rich subject for exploration today.

In photography, still life images were some of the first explored, simply because they were still, and therefore relatively easy to portray with the long exposures needed. Talbot demonstrated images of vases in The Pencil of Nature and Anna Atkins cyanotypes showed a wide range of botanical specimens. More recently, Mapplethorpe, who is probably better known for his portraiture, produced a stunning series of still life photographs, mainly of flowers, but also of the traditional memento mori object of a skull.

© Estate of Robert Mapplethorpe

Still life can be used as a formal series without including other genres or mixed with portraits and landscapes to broaden the story. A recent example of this is the work by Øyvind Hjelmen (Hjelman, s.d.)who, in his recent work, Moments Reflected, shows an unexplained cone on a desk, and a lightbulb hanging from a ceiling amongst a series of hazy images of people and animals. He is (according to Laura Serani in his artists statement) telling about the past and the present, memories and dreams. Another example of this mixture of still life, portraits and landscapes is shown in Bed and Breakfast by Susan Lipper .

© øyvind hjelmen

Still life images can be made from ‘found objects’, used as they are, in their environment, such as in Making Do and Getting By by Richard Wentworth and Dingbats by Chris Wylie (Wiley, s.d.) where he takes images of close-up details seen on buildings and objects and shows them in a  formal setting against a vividly patterned frame. He says ‘ the works in this series are concerned, at least in part, with the concept of the ersatz – a descriptor of things that strive to be something other and better than they are, whose existence is defined by being like rather than simply being….Photography is like the real, but is not the real’ (Cotton, 2015).


Dingbat – © Chris Wiley

Other photographers choose to take the objects out of the environment and make elaborate ‘sculptures’ which they then photograph. Sarah Lynch with her carefully balanced objects, suspended with wire and thread and the Laura Letinsky images of left-over things and torn out, repurposed items show this. Another example is the work of Tim Brill (Brill, s.d.) whose Still Life series draws of 17th Century Dutch and Spanish masters. On his website he says, ‘The term Still Life is essentially oxymoronic and in this body of work I look to animate that stillness by removing the quotidian nature of the objects’. He uses fruit and vegetables set against a simple black background on a marginally visible dark surface. Sometimes the items are suspended, sometimes lying on shelves. The colours are intensely vibrant, almost unreal. In a further series Teddy Bear he uses a similar technique and places an old teddy bear with a variety of fruit, broken toys, a skull. He then adds a simple statement is a chalkboard style typeface such as ‘is it time?’ (with the very dilapidated teddy and the skull). He describes this series as exploring the loss of innocence. Tabea Mathern undertook a personal project to produce 52 still life images, one a week for a year. She shows them all on her website (Mathern, s.d.), they vary from collections of found objects to elaborate staged sculptures. All come with the date and an explanation, some long, some just a sentence.

Week 52
Number fifth-two. My last stilllife. A year is a bag full of weird, beautiful, scary, precious, dangerous, exhausting, empowering things, people, stories and encounters. I’m thankful for it. Happy 2015! © Tabea Mathern

It is clear from this very brief overview that still life images can be used to illustrate all parts of life, from childhood to extreme old age, from dreams to memories. A rapid Google search came up with 4,660,000,000 results and an almost equally massive number of images. Most (at a quick scan) seem to be the classic images of fruit, jugs, silverware and skulls. Many of the colours are luscious, the backgrounds often dark. If I am going to add anything of meaning to this array it needs to be personal, to represent something that I care about, and something that will add extra value to the topic. A big ask, but worth exploring.


Brill, T. (s.d.) TIM BRILL. At: http://www.timbrillphoto.com/index.cfm (Accessed 16/07/2020).

Cotton, C. (ed.) (2015) Photography is magic. New York: Aperture.

Hjelman (s.d.) Oyvind Hjelmen. At: https://www.oyvindhjelmen.com/ (Accessed 16/07/2020).

Huntsman, P. (2016) Thinking about art: A thematic guide to art history. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell.

Mathern, T. (s.d.) STILLLIFESTORIES. At: https://tabeamathern-stilllifestories.tumblr.com/?og=1 (Accessed 16/07/2020).

Wiley, C. (s.d.) Chris Wiley – Dingbats. At: http://www.chriswiley.net/index.php?id=works/dingbats (Accessed 16/07/2020).



Self Evidence – Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe

Self Evidence is an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery of Scotland, which is being shown, appropriately, in the Robert Mapplethorpe Gallery.  The three photographers shown were all interested in the idea of identity, or the self, and how to show it.


Diane Arbus (1923-1971)

Arbus is a fascinating photographer who took a collection of images of what she called her ‘singular people’. These were often of people who were different in some way, for instance, the Jewish giant, and the images of people from nudist camps. There are ethical dilemmas in her images, especially when looked at from todays stance. Did she ask permission? Did she explain how she was using the images? Did she pay for them? The answer to all of these is probably no – but nor did any of the photographers of her time. She undoubtedly took images that would be difficult to take today – those of people with a learning difficulty and physical challenges. Nowadays we would need to find out who has the appropriate guardianship and rights of welfare attorney, get formal permission, and credit the people involved. Does that mean the images should not have been taken then, when it was a different world? Does it mean they should not be shown now? What is obvious from the images is that Arbus engaged with the people. For the images of those people in a nudist camp she took the pictures while naked to make them feel comfortable. She talked to the people with learning problems and visited them – something that was rarely done at that time, when ‘mental issues’ were hidden away. She gave them a voice, even if they did nor fully understand what was being said.  Arbus addressed identity by looking at other people rather than herself.

Francesca Woodman (1958-1981)

In Woodman’s short life she took a vast number of images, many which have never been on display. The ones shown in this exhibition are a variety of images mainly of herself or her boyfriend, Ben. They are small, black and white, mostly square. Some have been written across and were used as notes to send to others. Many are partially out of focus. She utilised mirrors, reflections and odd shafts of light to illuminate the important areas. Many of the images show herself partly hidden or on the edge of the frame, such as Untitled (FW crouching behind an umbrella). She becomes a ghostly partial presence. Do the images tell you about Woodman – or hide her? It is difficult to read her images nowadays without considering her suicide at a young age, and wondering what impact this had on her photography – but much of her oeuvre was  taken well before that and it is almost certainly simplistic to assume that all the images were taken by someone who was depressed! Much is experimental, much echoes the type of photography and art she was exposed to.

Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989)

The exhibition of Mapplethorpe self-portraits shows a range of images from those of him in his early bad boy, leather and whips phase to ones with a suited and serious mien to those taken just before his death. They often show him playing a role, holding a knife or a gun, possibly copying stances from films. They become gradually less controversial, although not completely so. There is one from 1985 which shows him wearing horns. Is he playing as a satyr or as a devil? Is it another riff on his earlier images that use themes from the Catholic Church? The final one is of his face and hand holding a stick with a skull. All else is black. A true play on a ‘memento mori’ image, made more poignant because he was clearly aware of his own impending death.  All of the images are beautifully crafted, balanced and set formally within the frame. Whatever you think of his lifestyle and the photographs he chose to take it is impossible to deny that he was a skilled artist, who used his own life to tell a story about a population that was mainly hidden then, and often still is.


It was fascinating to see these three photographers side by side. They all died young, two by suicide, one because of AIDS. They were all interested in portraiture. The photographs they took were very different. Arbus showed her interest in people by taking images of others. Woodman photographed herself, but in an elliptical, sideways way, hiding as much as she showed. Mapplethorpe’s images are clear, in your face and controversial – but does his apparent clarity hide as much as Woodman’s less overt images do?

Robert Mapplethorpe – A Brief History

Mapplethorpe was interested in identity and amongst his huge oeuvre he took multiple portraits, and many self portraits. He was gay, however he initially tried to bury this aspect of himself and conform, but eventually ended up making images that are highly charged, homoerotic in nature, that still have the power to shock, and, over the years, have often been banned from display.

Mapplethorpe grew up in the rebellious years, when the civil rights movement in America was active, gay liberation was starting, the birth-pill became available, and gay pornographic films became mainstream (Deep Throat). He was born into a middle-class family and was said to be a socially awkward teenager. Initially at college he was part of a right wing, strongly heterosexual group, but gradually became more interested in the counterculture movement, started using drugs and became interested in the Cubists and Surrealists. He also met Patti Smith who became a huge influence and support in his life. He initially made mixed media and collage artworks, often based on religious iconography (although with erotic overtones).  He had been brought up Catholic, with all the colour, pomp and rituals of that faith.

Tie Rack – 1969 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

He started photography using a Polaroid camera, initially possibly to make images that he could use in his collages, but then to make images of anything he was interested in, including his lover, flowers, china and odd bits of outdoor scenery.  He took many of Patti Smith, but also others of himself in a range of situations. There is one very early series of Patti Don’t Touch Here showing her leaning against the wall, looking subdued and thoughtful, possibly taken by a very possessive friend/partner/lover. Many off the Polaroid images were snapshots, taken in the moment and for the moment. Speed of production was the thing.

dont touch
Robert Mapplethorpe – Don’t Touch Here © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Mapplethorpe took self-portraits throughout his career. They were often partially veiled or broken into fragments, he would hand colour parts of the images, and take his body from unusual angles. While he was a certainly free with the types of images he took, with much play acting there was only a limited amount of true self disclosure. In an interview in 1987 he said ‘I would never take a self-portrait when I was depressed…. I don’t want to see that part of me’ (Wolf, 2019). Does all the highly explicit imagery do as much to conceal as to show?

As well as continuing to take homoerotic images mainly of the gay, male s/m community, (which he was an active and enthusiastic part of) Mapplethorpe also circulated in the art and culture high society, taking a series of portraits of the rich and famous, film stars and artists. He excelled in showing their hidden personality. Mapplethorpe was interested in art history and collected photographs by a range of people, including Julia Margaret Cameron and Minor White. He often used these interests to inform his photography, posing people to replicate statues or earlier art works, such as James Ford in his bathtub – like the Death of Marat painting by Jaqueline-Louis David. He also continued to photograph still life images, often showing them in elaborate frames. He moved to using a Hasselblad with its square format and increased clarity, while taking more images of the famous, posed against neutral backgrounds. He had moved from the immediacy of the Polaroid images to producing perfection in gelatin silver prints.

© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

His work became famous and was regularly shown all over the world. He also produced books and limited run portfolios. Many of his exhibitions were contentious, and some were cancelled as being ‘pornographic’ (which they undoubtedly were) – although this raises the ongoing question about whether pornography and art are mutually exclusive. Can they be? And indeed, should they be? Where is the boundary and what side are many of Mapplethorpe’s images on?

Mapplethorpe kept careful control of his work, and, although he did not produce prints himself, was heavily involved in what they looked like, and how many of each edition should be offered. Many of his images were never printed for sale. He was fascinated by symmetry, form and geometry – which the square format of the Hasselblad lent itself to. However, he did not just take nudes, he also took a wide range of portraits and still life images. He always looked for perfection. Something different – he said in 1978 “I want the person to look at least as interesting as they can look… I try to catch something unique in him that no one else has” (Mapplethorpe, 1978, quoted in Robert Mapplethorpe, The Photographs, p57).

Mapplethorpe contracted AIDS and died in 1989, setting up The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation just before he died. Prior to his death he continued to work intensively but concentrated more on still life images of flowers and sculptures. His images remain a fascinating legacy of a complex man.

References and Sources:

Hartley, K. and National Galleries Of Scotland (2006). Robert Mapplethorpe -National Galleries of Scotland to accompany the exhibition Robert Mapplethorpe held in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, from 29 July to 5 November 2006. Edinburgh Scottish National Gallery Of Modern Art.

Mapplethorpe, R., Martineau, P., Salvesen, B., Gefter, P., Katz, J.D., Linkof, R., Meyer, R., Squiers, C., Getty, P., County, A. and Musée Des Beaux-Arts De Montréal (2016). Robert Mapplethorpe: The Photographs. Los Angeles, Calif.: J. Paul Getty Museum.

National Galleries of Scotland. (2019). ARTIST ROOMS Self Evidence | Photographs by Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe. [online] Available at: https://www.nationalgalleries.org/exhibition/artist-rooms-self-evidence-photographs-woodman-arbus-and-mapplethorpe [Accessed 26 Jul. 2019].

Wolf, S. (2019). Mapplethorpe – Polaroids. Prestel.