A Refined Understanding Of Beauty And Symmetry

ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE remains as one of the best remembered photographers of the 20th century, most noted for his black and white portraits of celebrities, flowers, male and female nudes. Mapplethorpe was born in 1946 in Queens, New York, and grew up in a conservative Catholic household. He attended the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he majored in graphic arts, concentrating painting and sculpture. Initially creating collages from photographs, paintings and found objects, it was in the early 1970’s that he adopted photography as his primary choice of medium. Using a Polaroid SX-70 camera, Mapplethorpe quickly became popular in the New York art scene photographing portraits of his friends, including artists, musicians, porn stars and socialites. Although his photographic work ranged in themes, his formalist approach to photography allowed him to depict subjects primarily through a refined understanding of beauty and symmetry. Listing Michelangelo as a main influence in his work, Mapplethorpe was considered a formalist for his sculptural use of photography.

From A Three-Dimensional Sculpture On To A Two-Dimensional Medium

During Mapplethorpe’s unfortunately short yet successful lifetime and artistic career, the medium of photography was not as celebrated as an art form as much as it is today. Mapplethorpe, with a mastery of lighting, composition and careful staging was able to bring photography into major museums and collections. His relentless pursuit of beauty without imperfections reached new heights towards the end of his lifetime during the 80s, where his work presented an added refinement in style. Mapplethorpe directed his focus more towards studying the human figure with a dedication to perfecting his skill and technique.

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

Through the medium of photography, Mapplethorpe essentially reimagines the three-dimensional sculpture on a two-dimensional medium, both challenging the viewer and presenting them with images of classical beauty.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Maybelle
Robert Mapplethorpe, Maybelle, 1982, Silver Gelatin Photograph


Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1982 photograph titled Maybelle brings together all of the key elements that shape his photographic style; the universal values of beauty and symmetry, color contrasts, careful manipulation of light and shadow in the studio environment. Maybelle, is shown from the front in a straight standing manner with a black and white backdrop symmetrically divided in half. She holds a white fabric that covers her head and the right side of her body, leaving the other half naked. The photograph is a direct depiction of the human figure as sculpture and an homage to the supremacy of the human body. The sitter is centrally positioned with all other distracting details around her kept at a minimum. Critical attention is paid to bringing the essence of the subjects out to film through the manipulation of light and shadow, and a studio setting orchestrated to perfection. The gelatin silver print further to polish the subject where the use of light creates an idealized aesthetic, which makes the photograph seem cool and distant. In a 1988 interview, Mapplethorpe comments on his polished utilitarian aesthetic by saying;

“My whole point is to transcend the subject, go beyond the subject somehow, so that the composition, the lighting all around reaches a certain point of perfection.”

Mapplethorpe’s work objectified everyone it depicted, where rather than putting across the character of the sitter, his photographs reflect his own vision, and his own perfect idea of the sitter. In the case of Maybelle, the model’s gaze, almost confrontational, is directed towards to viewer. Her eyes show little to no human emotion, further enhancing the statuesque stance. The carefully controlled studio lighting traces paths across the model’s skin and further defines her muscles, portraying a sense of classical Greek sensuality.

Religious And Sociological References

Mapplethorpe’s choice of styling and composition also presents the viewer with religious and sociological references. Using clothing as an access to hidden desires is a recurring theme throughout Mapplethorpe’s work, which is evident in this photograph as well. Robert Mapplethorpe leaves space for curiosity and imagination by covering only one half of Maybelle’s body. Even the way the fabric falls down across her body follows the rules of geometry and symmetry, balance and harmony. Such composition presents aspects of duality where the bodily composition is mysterious yet inviting, intimate yet distant. Mapplethorpe references his Catholic upbringing and interest in religious symbolism where Maybelle’s head is covered much like the way Virgin Mary is often depicted in Christian imagery. Such a religious reference combined with the models’s seductive and direct gaze presents and overall controversial yet elegant picture.

“To have something that’s beautiful’ says Mapplethorpe, ‘somehow gives me a feeling that approaches immortality. It’s very similar to the act of creating.”

Ageless Examples Of Fine Art Photography

Robert Mapplethorpe’s sculptural nudes are associated with ideals of beauty. His study of the human form demonstrates the artist’s concerns in reaching perfection in which he continually constructs photographs to emphasize their symmetry, structure and geometry. His pursuit of achieving perfection is not only reflected in terms of context, but is also evident within the composition and use of technique that goes into creating the image. His refined and sometimes shocking images have influenced a generation of artists who study order and purity of form in their art. Mapplethorpe’s rich body of work not only transcend the subjects he chose to photograph, but the photographs themselves also transcend time, becoming classic, ageless examples of fine art photography. His legacy is immortalized with exhibitions held at the likes of Guggenheim Museum, Kunsthal Rotterdam, Tate Modern and Musee Rodin. Although still considered controversial and taboo by many, Robert Mapplethorpe continues to remain as one of the most revered American photographers of the 20th century.