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A compendium of queer people in the 19th and 20th centuries // Drawn and researched by Michele Rosenthal

Robert  Mapplethorpe

Robert Mapplethorpe 1946to –1989

American photographer, known for his classically beautiful and often controversial black and white images. Born in New York City, he studied art at Pratt for some years before moving to the Chelsea Hotel with his close friend Patti Smith. Around that time he acquired his first Polaroid camera, and began documenting his friends and their unconventional lives—he would also create the iconic cover of Patti Smith’s debut album Horses. In 1972, he met the curator Sam Wagstaff, who became his romantic partner and benefactor, and who helped Mapplethorpe stage his first solo exhibition. They remained together until Wagstaff died of AIDS in 1987, shortly after Mapplethorpe himself had been diagnosed. Mapplethorpe’s favorite subjects ranged from floral close-ups to body builders to celebrity portraits to depictions of BDSM, all with the same classical sense of composition, and often charged with homoeroticism and sexual desire. When he turned his camera on eroticized black male nudes, he drew criticisms of exploitation—but a bigger controversy arose shortly after his death with the traveling exhibit The Perfect Moment. The show included many of his more pornographic and sadomasochistic images, most notably a self portrait with a bullwhip inserted up his own ass. It sparked a national debate on the use of government funding for the arts, and resulted in a cancelled show in Washington, D.C. and an obscenity trial in Cincinnati. Of course, the negative press made Mapplethorpe’s work more popular than ever.

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