Pushing the Boundaries of Photography

Controversial and fiercely creative, American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe created a titillating aesthetic, often irreverent, that pushed the boundaries of photography and was influential in elevating the medium to an established fine art form. Perhaps due to the images’ potent nature, they heightened a particular interest in photography that documented NYC’s underground culture. Mapplethorpe’s work often combined erotically charged material with technical precision through a presentation of seldom photographed, controversial subject matter. His images depicted an array of subjects, from sexual fetishes rendered in the manner of religious imagery, intimate and risqué portrayals of lovers, graceful classical compositions and still lifes exploring a full range of light, and statuesque studies of the human form. Mapplethorpe’s body of work became renowned for being unequivocally defiant in the same way as they were technically brilliant and strikingly beautiful. In his photographic legacy, Mapplethorpe created a candid yet ambitious interplay between light, composition, and subject matter that, void of any inhibitions, challenged the traditional sensibilities of fine art.

The Early Years

Initially trained as a painter at the Pratt Institute in New York, Robert Mapplethorpe first emerged from the safe confines of the middle-class, predominantly Catholic, suburbs in Queens, New York. After moving to NYC, he lived in the iconic Chelsea Hotel with musician and poet, Patti Smith, a romantic partnership that became famous by both of their successes in the creative world, but also as one of his earliest influential relationships. In the ’70s, Robert Mapplethorpe would begin creating polaroids of his inner circle of friends and would eventually meet Sam Wagstaff, an aristocratic socialite, who had previously worked an art curator. Wagstaff gifted Mapplethorpe his first professional camera, and Mapplethorpe kindled Wagstaff’s interest in the photographic medium. This relationship elevated Mapplethorpe’s visibility as an artist in a time when photography was considered more a commercial venture than fine art. Mapplethorpe’s subsequent incursion into the underground S&M subculture, created a provocative body of work with unapologetic defiance, exploring the male figure and imbuing it with unparalleled mystique and sexual energy. This attention to the subject matter of human sexuality was underscored by Mapplethorpe’s expert handling of composition, turning his voyeuristic eye into an evolving, perfectionist study of proportion, form, and light.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Frank Diaz, 1979, Silver Gelatin Photograph

Frank Diaz

The black and white portrait of Frank Diaz considered “the hottest Puerto Rican in New York,” eventually became a fixture of the 70’s gay disco scene. This photograph was initially displayed in NYC with a mirror directly to its right, turning every viewer into a potential victim of the drawn dagger, an example of Mapplethorpe’s subtle transgression and sensible, neoclassical harmony. The photograph’s palette references the elegant tones and shadows from the marble statues of classical antiquity. There is an allusion to religious imagery in this picture, in the manner of St. Michael, the archangel casting away demons, with the clutch of the dagger and winged eagle tattoo on the sitter’s forearm creating a tangible link. As with much of his work, Mapplethorpe bridges ancient aesthetics into the modern world.

“I want to see the devil in us all, that’s my real turn on.”

“I mean, that (his photograph) is sculpture to me… and that is sort of one of the points I’m making in photography, is being a sculptor. Without actually having to spend all the time modeling with your hands, you know, that’s much too archaic for me.”


Robert Mapplethorpe is one of the seminal artists whose iconic work helped elevate photography as a medium of fine art, now considered in the same realm as sculpture and painting. His unapologetic use of taboo subject matter and provocative vigor towards producing work eventually became a visionary form of expression for artistic liberty and for documenting the human experience.


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