The original Black Book was first published late in 1986 by Robert Mapplethorpe just two and a half years before his death from Aids. The book of all black male nudes almost immediately came under criticism both positive and more prevalently negative. The controversy began with 1986 solo exhibition “Black Males” and the subsequent book The Black Book sparked controversy for their depiction of black men. The images, erotic depictions of black men, were widely criticized for being exploitative. The work was largely phallocentric and sculptural, focusing on segments of the subject’s bodies. His purported intention with these photographs and the use of black men as models was the pursuit of the Platonic ideal. Mapplethorpe’s initial interest in black males began when he first started cruising clubs like Kellers across from the Christopher Street Piers.
There were many who heaped opprobrium on Mapplethorpe’s work, from morally outraged, respectable types, through to those who charged Mapplethorpe with playing fast and loose with potent and enduring stereotypes about the Black (male) body and indulging in racial fetishism. Contemporary photographers like Dave Lewis and black artists like Glen Ligon have provided criticism via their art while Isaac Julien and Kobena Mercer took more academic runs at Mapplethorpes work during the early 90’s Essex Hemphill also expressed criticism in his anthology Brother to Brother (1991). Although he believed that Mapplethorpe’s work reflected exceptional talent, Hemphill also believed that it displayed a lack of concern for black individuals in the gay community, “except as sexual subjects”.
A lot has changed since 1986… The initial shock and awe of Mapplethorpe’s work has fallen off significantly because society has been changed and anesthetized to the work on some level on the other hand the once thought dream of a post black world has been shattered for the foreseeable time if not forever. Cushman’s work started in 1987 almost literally after Mapplethorp’s was ending and his intellectual leanings listened to the criticism of the former. His formative years growing up in Detroit also gave him a special understanding employed in his work.
As he phrased this issue in an interview: "My photography serves to document what the model and other viewers already know. Models who approach me to take their images simply want me to find that inside them selves on some level. I don't direct the sessions like other photographer might. I spend a fair amount of time getting to know my models on a personal level. I am more interested in how they see themselves and try to arrange moments where they participate by showing me. I have directed a few shoots where there has been a lot of set up for the image idea they have asked for, but even then it’s still rooted in their desires.”
Andrew Howdle writes: “Christopher Cushman shoots the “manifestation”, the image that his models desire to reveal: the light within. This aesthetic and ethical principle sets him aside from the work of Mapplethorpe. The work of Christopher Cushman is framed by a more human and humane understanding of people. For him, the Black male is a person, a mind, a body, a spirit. He sees a kind of idealism in the person he views, but his photograph is not a “capture”, an enslavement, a person “aestheticized”, even anaesthetized to a point where they appear without feeling.
In his selection of work for this book, Christopher Cushman has been judicious. His work is a quest for a space beyond Mapplethorpe. He has clearly thought about his own work and how it echoes and departs from Mapplethorpe and which Mapplethorpe idioms are truly dead ends. If there is often a dead silence around Mapplethorpe’s models in the Black Book, in the Black Book 30 there is a wish to surround the models with a life and a voice. The result is a photographic art that looks in to see the model looking out— such that engagement replaces voyeurism. These photographs are shot with a sense of friendship, closeness, humility and dialogue.”
30 years on Cushman and Black Book 30 gives the viewer something else they should consider.
BLACKBOOK30 Is Available on Amazon Click Here
Note: All images and text (not specified) is copyrighted by Christopher Cushman. This site does not specify or denote the sexual orientation of any model and as such please post your comments accordingly.