Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) was an American photographer, known for his BDSM photography. His most controversial works documented and examined the gay male BDSM subculture of New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Mapplethorpe took many pictures of the Mineshaft, which his lover Jack Fritscher had introduced him to, and was at one point its official photographer. Jack Fritscher was the editor-in-chief of Drummer from March 1977 to December 1979, and as such he (among other things) profiled Mapplethorpe and gave Mapplethorpe his first magazine cover (Drummer issue 24, September 1978).
In 1977, as a carpenter Jim Stewart built San Francisco’s first known homoerotic art gallery, Fey-Way Studios, at 1287 Howard Street; the gallery, owned by Robert Opel, helped bring some erotic gay artists including Mapplethorpe to national attention.
The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., had agreed to be one of the host museums for a tour of some of Mapplethorpe’s work. Mapplethorpe decided to show his latest series; titled Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, the show included photographs from his X Portfolio, which featured images of (among other things) gay BDSM and a self-portrait with a bullwhip inserted in his anus. But the Corcoran eventually refused this because it was too controversial for them, so the underwriters of the exhibition went to the nonprofit Washington Project for the Arts, which showed all the images in its space from July 21 to August 13, 1989, to large crowds. In 1990, the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, which had also shown the exhibit, and Dennis Barrie, were charged with obscenity; photographs that depicted men in sadomasochistic poses were the basis of charges that the museum and its director had pandered obscenity. They were found not guilty by a jury.
Mapplethorpe died of an AIDS related illness in 1989, and is among those commemorated in the AIDS Quilt.
After his death, in 1998, the University of Central England was involved in a controversy when a library book by Mapplethorpe was confiscated. A final-year undergraduate student was writing a paper on the work of Robert Mapplethorpe and intended to illustrate the paper with a few photographs from Mapplethorpe, a book of the photographer’s work. She took the photographs to the local chemist to be developed and the chemist informed West Midlands Police because of the unusual nature of the images. The police confiscated the library book from the student and informed the university that two photographs in the book would have to be removed. If the university agreed to the removal (which it did not) the book would be returned. The two photographs, which were deemed possibly prosecutable as obscenity, were “Helmut and Brooks, NYC, 1978”, which shows anal fisting, and “Jim and Tom, Sausalito, 1977″, which is of a man clad in a dog collar, a leather mask and trousers, urinating into another man’s mouth.” After a delay of about six months, the affair came to an end when Peter Knight, the Vice-Chancellor of the university, was informed that no legal action would be taken. The book was returned to the university library without removal of the photos.
Also after his death, in September 1999, Arena Editions published Pictures, a monograph that reintroduced Mapplethorpe’s sex pictures. In 2000, Pictures was seized by two South Australian plain-clothes detectives from an Adelaide bookshop in the belief that the book breached indecency and obscenity laws. Police sent the book to the Canberra-based Office of Film and Literature Classification after the state Attorney-General’s Department deftly decided not to get involved in the mounting publicity storm. Eventually, the OFLC board agreed unanimously that the book, imported from the United States, should remain freely available and unrestricted.
Mapplethorpe lived with his girlfriend Patti Smith from 1967 to 1972, and she supported him by working in bookstores. They created art together, and maintained a close friendship throughout Mapplethorpe’s life.
From 1977 until 1980, Mapplethorpe was the lover of writer and Drummer editor-in-chief Jack Fritscher, who introduced him to the Mineshaft. Jack Fritscher was the editor-in-chief of Drummer from March 1977 to December 1979, and as such he (among other things) profiled Mapplethorpe and gave Mapplethorpe his first magazine cover.
He was friends with the Finnish artist Touko Valio Laaksonen, best known as Tom of Finland, whose work was also subject to controversy.
Nearly a year before his death, Mapplethorpe helped found the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, Inc. His vision for the Foundation was that it would be “the appropriate vehicle to protect his work, to advance his creative vision, and to promote the causes he cared about”. Since his death, the Foundation has not only functioned as his official estate and helped promote his work throughout the world, but has also raised and donated millions of dollars to fund medical research in the fight against AIDS and HIV infection. In 1991 the Foundation received the Large Nonprofit Organization of the Year award as part of the Pantheon of Leather Awards. The Foundation donated $1 million towards the 1993 establishment of the Robert Mapplethorpe Residence, a six-story townhouse for long-term residential AIDS treatment on East 17th Street in New York City, in partnership with Beth Israel Medical Center. The residence closed in 2015 citing financial difficulties. The Foundation also promotes fine art photography at the institutional level. The Foundation helps determine which galleries represent Mapplethorpe’s art. In 2011, the Foundation donated the Robert Mapplethorpe Archive, spanning from 1970 to 1989, to the Getty Research Institute.