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Fetish Blog

Robert Mapplethorpe – The Original Boundary Pusher

Posted on 5/3/2017 by Felicia Fetish in Sadomasochism Robert Maplethorpe Leatherman Leather mask S&M underground fetish fetish photography

Although he’d gained some success as an artist on the New York scene during the 1970s, Robert Mapplethorpe made his name in 1988 with his ‘The Perfect Moment’ exhibition. For many people the controversial photographs he showed, including nude portraits, flowers, interracial sex acts and men engaged in sadomasochism were a step too far, whilst the more liberal minded saw Mapplethorpe’s in your face exhibit as the ideal catalyst to open up a valuable conversation about the relationship between censorship and homosexuality.

By choosing to exhibit his photographs Mapplethorpe demystified an entire gay subculture and instilled it with value, letting his audience know that learning about and appreciating the beauty in all types of intimacy is worthwhile. Mapplethorpe took the usually very private act of sadomasochistic sex and placed it smack bang in the middle of the public arena, laying bare an entire subsection of society and in many ways making sadomasochism more mainstream.

However, those that didn’t appreciate Mapplethorpe’s work were quick to criticise it for being ‘violent’ and ‘perverse’ and at the time, the exhibition got the artist into serious hot water. Whilst it was welcomed with open arms by some galleries, others simply refused to show the work. In the end, the exhibition was heavily censored and was rarely seen for two decades following its first showing. Sadly, Mapplethorpe died of HIV related illness later that same year and never got to see the undeniable influence that his photographs had on Western culture.

Today Mapplethorpe is viewed in a much softer light and the true contribution that he made to modern art and to homosexual life is beginning to be recognised. But his Influence can be seen even more strongly in today’s mainstream popular culture. More on that later.

Mapplethorpe’s Early Years

Born in 1946 to a large Roman Catholic family in Queens, New York, Mapplethorpe showed a talent for draftsmanship from a young age. At just 16 he enrolled at art school in Brooklyn and became highly influenced by artists like Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell, who was famous for creating assemblage art from cut out magazine photos and other materials.

In 1970 he moved to the Chelsea hotel with his lifelong friend singer Patti Smith and began taking Polaroids to use in his art. Within three years Mapplethorpe held his first exhibition of Polaroid photos. Two years later he bought a Hassleblad camera and started capturing the lives of his friends – artists, actors, musicians, socialites and porn stars who were part of New York’s underground scene.

By the late 70s Mapplethorpe began documenting the New York S&M scene which he had become a part of. When his first exhibition launched, the artist defended his integrity by insisting that he had never set out to shock, that he was an artist who ‘looked for the unexpected’ and wanted to create images of things he’d never seen before.

The Power of Perversion

Anyone who views Mapplethorpe’s starkly arresting black and white photographs of unapologetic homosexual men engaged in sex acts could be in no doubt that the images the artist creates are affecting. In ‘The Perfect Moment’, Mapplethorpe created his own ‘perfect exhibition’.

Most artists don’t want to be universally loved and Mapplethorpe was amongst those who would rather their work starts a dialogue, makes people think and stirs emotions – and whether the results are positive or negative, there’s no denying that Mapplethorpe’s images do exactly that.

By looking at a photo, the viewer is colluding with the subjects. Although not a participant in the act, they still experience something of the lifestyle by viewing it. the themes of subordination and dominance that run throughout Mapplethorpe’s work on one level reveal a sadomasochistic subculture which had up until then been mostly kept under wraps, but on another level they demonstrate how subaltern homosexual culture is ignored, removed and subordinate to mainstream society.

The Legacy of Leather and Chains

Look through any trendy fashion or hip lifestyle mag today and you’ll see Mapplethorpe’s influence everywhere. Cutting edge fashion photography still heavily borrows from Mapplethorpe’s canon and shock tactics, stark black and white and a smattering of leather, metal and hard edged glamour are still the look du jour.

All photographs displayed are courtesy of and I encourage you to visit the website where you can view Maplethorpe's complete works online and find out about exhibitions around the world.

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