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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Robert Mapplethorpe

Dates:  1946, 4 November - 1989, 9 March
Born:  US, NY, Queens, Floral Park
Active:  US
American photographer who experimented with Polaroid images sometimes doing portraits of his close friend Patti Smith. In the 1970s he switched to large and medium format shots to take homo-erotic, fetish and sado-masochistic images. His series on Lisa Lyon, the first World Women's Bodybuilding Champion, was published as Lady, Lisa Lyon. He also took series of still-lifes, studio shots of flowers and portraits of exquisite beauty based upon poses used in Classical statues. His work is challenging, provocative and at times unsettling but needs to be understood in its entirety.
On 27th May 1987 he established the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to supprt museums that showed photography and to fund medical research and the fights against AIS and HIV. Robert Mapplethorope died at 42 of AIDS.

Preparing biographies

Biography provided by Focal Press 
Mapplethorpe achieved saturated recognition for his elegant photographic still life, portraits, and nudes, before dying tragically of AIDS. Born in New York to a Catholic family, he studied at Pratt Institute (drawing, sculpture) before becoming a photographic artist (he had considered a career as a musician). His interest in camera images was piqued by access to closed collections maintained by John McKendry (curator at Metropolitan Museum of Art) and Sam Wagstaff. He started taking Polaroid images and was influenced by Warhol’s art. Early portraits were of Lisa Lyon and Patti Smith. Mapplethorpe’s work was presented in a relatively modernist, aesthetisized style and his best known photographs featured nudes of black males and images with overt homoerotic subjects. The Corcoran Gallery canceled a solo exhibit, The Perfect Moment, by Mapplethorpe in 1989 due to pressure from groups voicing opposition to depictions of homosexual eroticism and the fact that the artist had received some funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. The show was put on in Cincinnati in 1990 and this resulted in litigation over obscenity charges (subsequently, charges against the show sponsors resulted in an acquittal). The death of the artist from AIDS just before this brought about a clamorous collision between art, reality, morality, and legal issues. At the same time, the "culture wars" between liberal and conservative viewpoints flared up in many arenas. As an indirect consequence of Mapplethorpe’s photographs, public funding for the arts suffered drastic curtailment in the 1990s but the art world, for the most part, became more steadfast as a defender of freedom of expression. 
(Author: Ken White - Rochester Institute of Technology) 
Michael Peres (Editor-in-Chief), 2007, Focal Encyclopedia of Photography, 4th edition, (Focal Press) [ISBN-10: 0240807405, ISBN-13: 978-0240807409] 
(Used with permission) 

Further research

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Kurt Edward Fishback
Robert Mapplethorpe 
Family history 
If you are related to this photographer and interested in tracking down your extended family we can place a note here for you to help. It is free and you would be amazed who gets in touch.

Visual indexes

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Visual indexes for this photographer are available for subscribers.There is so much more to explore when you subscribe. 

Internet biographies

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Wikipedia has a biography of this photographer. Go to website
Getty Research, Los Angeles, USA has an ULAN (Union List of Artists Names Online) entry for this photographer. This is useful for checking names and they frequently provide a brief biography. Go to website
Grove Art Online ( has a biography of this artist. 
[NOTE: This is a subscription service and you will need to pay an annual fee to access the content.]
 Go to website

Internet resources

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The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, Inc. ... 
Robert Mapplethorpe: Biography ... 
Robert Mapplethorpe: Selected Works ... 
Robert Mapplethorpe: Flowers ... 
Robert Mapplethorpe: Female Nudes ... 
Robert Mapplethorpe: Male Nudes ... 
Robert Mapplethorpe: Portraits ... 
Robert Mapplethorpe: Statuary ... 
Robert Mapplethorpe: Self Portraits ... 
Robert Mapplethorpe: Unique ... 

Printed biographies

The following books are useful starting points to obtain brief biographies but they are not substitutes for the monographs on individual photographers.

• Auer, Michele & Michel 1985 Encyclopedie Internationale Des Photographes de 1839 a Nos Jours / Photographers Encylopaedia International 1839 to the present (Hermance, Editions Camera Obscura) 2 volumes [A classic reference work for biographical information on photographers.] 
• Evans, Martin Marix (Executive ed.) 1995 Contemporary Photographers [Third Edition] (St. James Press - An International Thomson Publishing Company) [Expensive reference work but highly informative.] 
• Lenman, Robin (ed.) 2005 The Oxford Companion to the Photograph (Oxford: Oxford University Press)  [Includes a short biography on Robert Mapplethorpe.] 

Useful printed stuff

If there is an analysis of a single photograph or a useful self portrait I will highlight it here.

• Koetzle, Hans-Michael 2002 Photo Icons: The Story Behind the Pictures - Volume 2 (Koln: Taschen) [This book discusses one photograph "Lisa Lyon (1982)" by Robert Mapplethorpe in considerable detail. An excellent source for a detailed analysis.] 
• Sobieszek, Robert A. and Deborah Irmas 1994 the camera i: Photographic Self-Portraits (Los Angeles: LACMA - Los Angeles County Museum of Art) p.225, Plate 135 [When the Audrey and Sydney Irmas collection was donated to LACMA - Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1992 the museum gained a remarkable collection of self portraits of notable photographers. If you need a portrait of Robert Mapplethorpe this is a useful starting point.] 


The wit and wisdom.

"I want people to see my works first as art and second as photography."
"I‘m looking for the unexpected. I‘m looking for things I‘ve never seen before."
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