Friday, October 30, 2009

Thoughts On Robert

A few times over recent months I have been asked or compared to Robert Mapplethorpe and I am having ambivalent feelings about the occasional comparison of my work/life to his. Over the past 10 years I have tried to read everything I can about him. In trying to understand myself and my creative motivations I like to read the biographies of many photographers. From my readings I have concluded a few common threads. Photographers have: The need to express beauty, the need to express uniqueness in the human condition, and finally the need to connect with people and events in a way that helps in the understanding of the self which is what I am doing now. What this blog is about.

I saw "The Perfect Moment" - Mapplethorpe's final exhibition prior to his death. It was at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art in 1987. I took my then boyfriend Aaron McGee to Chicago for the spring weekend as away of getting out of Detroit for a few days. It was a wonderful weekend, the highlight of which for me was the exhibit. It was also a time very early in my life as a photographer and Aaron was of coarse was one of my earliest models. On our drive back to Detroit Aaron became the first to openly compare my work to Mapplethorpe's. I asked him how he felt about what he had seen as a black gay man. On whole he seemed to like most of it save some of the uncomfortable S&M imagery on which I concurred. He mockingly said "You white folks are strange" we giggled and drove on.

Since then I have collected or read every book published on and about his work, read the biography by Patricia Morrisroe, the writings of Kobena Mercer who initially postulated the Mapplethorpe's images were racist in nature but has since reconsidered this position. Mercers work had largely looked at the imagery and developed a theory about the photographers motivation via his photographs composition, Morrisroe delved into the entirety of Roberts life to try and divine his artistic choices.

For the record, not all white people think alike so I'm not sure one can look at a photograph or a series of photographs and speak with certainty about the artists thoughts. Robert didn't just take photos of black men... he photographed women, socialites and celebrities, flowers and statuary, not to mention the S&M community.
To conclude wholly that Robert photographed from a racist point of view weather it was consciencely or un-consciencly doesn't seem reasonable. If anything he seemed driven by shock value and of coarse money. It is fair to say that Roberts work was highly sexualized but that could be said about allot of his work up to and including his work on flowers, but at the same time I understand the idea behind Mercers thoughts and in my opinion some of his examples seemed inflated and contrived to fit the need of the author.

It's in Morrisroes biography that Robert seems to show his racism. Looking at his life on whole Robert grew up in the mostly white and catholic community of Floral Park in Queens. He was never a child of Harlem or the Bronx and while I am sure he knew black people they were not part of his everyday life. Clearly tired and dissatisfied of the malaise of family life Robert ended up in the big city... Straight, gay, S&M, drugs...he clearly lived it all. New York was a candy box for his picking...

As Morrisroe wrote.. in 1980 Robert found god in an infamous Christopher Street gay bar called Kellers, a black man named Milton Moore. Robert perused and seduced him and then photographed him... including some of his most controversial photos "Man in a polyester suit" and one where Moore had a pillow case covering his head. Roberts tumultuous relationship with Milton Moore is clearly chronicled via Roberts many friends and associates as being one where Robert often referred to him as a Nigger. A word that clearly and understandably aggravated Moore. Robert is also quoted as saying Milton "had the face of a beautiful animal".

Many critics have sited the lack of a face in many of these initial images as Robert objectifying the black male body. In truth for these images it was actually by Milton's choice that was written into the terms of the photo release that no image could have both his nude body and face in the same image. While other truncated images where taken the vast majority of his images of black males included the full image of the model. While Milton clearly seemed to struggle with the challenges of mental illness it did not help nor explain Roberts use of the N word in their relationship.. Now almost 30 years later the thought of someone openly using that word... and in a relationship seems inconceivable. Given Roberts for penchant for S&M it can only be imagined that he used the word as a form of verbal abuse though I do not believe they shared the same interest in the S&M lifestyle. Additionally many reports indicated Robert legitimately seemed to care for Milton and tried to save their relationship by providing Milton with various forms of help, most of which never seemed to work out. Another of Mapplethorpe's model is Ken Moody whose experience was quite different from Moore's. His conclusion as seen in this youtube clip is that Robert Mapplethorpe was trying to give us a gift with his work, a conclusion which surprised me. On reflection Robert seems more complicated than I have previously thought.

As an artist Robert was an elitist, a master manipulator and at the very least racially challenged. He clearly struggled to find personal happiness until he died of AIDS. Yet ironically at the same time Mapplethorpe and another one of his long time relationships Sam Wagstaff clearly invigorated/elevated and legitimized the art photography market and his images still sell for 10's of thousands of dollars per print. Many if not all photographers have benefited from this fact. His images are beautiful and clearly perfect in their composition, manufacture and execution and on that final note it is hard to compare my work to his in terms of the perfection of final print. Robert worked with film using cameras I could only dream of holding let alone using. His prints, many large scale were processed in a darkroom using a time honored silver gelatin printing process which to this day still produce some of the finest quality prints available.

I too started out using film, though my cameras were small format and when digital came into vogue I was clearly and early adopter. Today my images are processed and manipulated in the computer using software and printed using dyes. Many images can be manipulated in such a way that mistakes made in camera can be eliminated. Composition is sometimes no longer slowly calculated process as SD cards can hold hundreds of images and photos can be taken until the perfect desired composition is found.

I earned a degree in illustration and design and my path to photography started via my interest in painting portraits and nudes of my friends, people whom I socialized with on a day to day basis. Photography made that process easier to establish the basis for the paintings. The immediacy of the photographic media soon over took my paintings and my friends began to ask me to take their images on a regular basis, word of mouth has perpetuated into more than 22 years of work.

My ambivalence about Robert Mapplethorpe is likely permanent. We share in subject matter but our paths are different, how we make our photographs is different and I believe the relationship between photographer and model is very different. I like many of his images yet from all I have read Robert is not someone I would have liked personally. We are different.

I recognize that some of my work has been conceived in part based on Roberts work, but many other photographers have informed my work as well, Herb Ritz, Richard Avedon and Annie Liebovitz just to name a few. In fact I don't think there is a photographer alive who's work was not informed by others. Through the evolution of this blog I have come to discover many other great photographers around the world who are like myself in as much as they photograph black men. I wonder if it was Robert Mapplethorpe who lifted the vail on the black male.

I continue on my path of discovery, perhaps one day I will understand.

Note: All images by Robert Mapplethorpe. Txt by Christopher Cushman. This site does not specify or denote the sexual orientation of any model and as such please post your comments accordingly.

No comments: