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The photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe


If there was a patron saint of contemporary LGBT art a contender for that title would surely be Robert Mapplethorpe. Mapplethorpe sought, found and held onto fame in the 1980s thanks in part to his gorgeously lit photographs of flowers and then his gorgeously lit photographs of naked men in all manner of sexual situations.

A Mapplethorpe image that you might recall is an early self-portrait. In it, the young Mapplethorpe is facing away from the camera; he is bent over looking back at the viewer, his mane of brown curls dipping below his shoulder; coyly protruding from his behind is a bullwhip with a long tassel. The photograph was and remains in your face, bold and provocative.

Another notorious Mapplethorpe image is Man in a Polyester Suit. The image is indeed of a man wearing a lighter colored polyester suit. The photo is cropped tightly around the man’s hip and torso region. The man’s fly is open. The rest is history. I am sure you’ve seen it.

Mapplethorpe died of AIDS related complications in 1989 with a reputation for being scandalous and calculating. However his work and his persona have been gathering a certain luster over the years, most recently in Just Kids, a wonderful memoir by his close friend, fellow artist Patti Davis.

The complete Robert Mapplethorpe story has yet to be told, even now 25 years after his untimely death. Like many complicated people the sum total of his contributions to art and to the gay experience will be revealed slowly through time as more books are written and more stories told. One such story will unfold here in San Diego this weekend when 36 rare Polaroid photographs go on display at the White Box Contemporary.


The exhibition titled The Agency opens May 3, at 5 p.m. with a wine reception and fundraiser for Mama’s Kitchen.

It’s unlikely you’ve seen these Polaroid’s before because they’ve been under a bed for 30 years; then again maybe you have! Here’s their story of origin: in 1983 Robert Mapplethorpe approached Alfredo Santiago, then president of the model agency Models Incorporated asking for work. It was an early attempt on Mapplethorpe’s part to break into the fashion industry.

Santiago told him to go away but Mapplethorpe persisted, finally convincing Santiago to give him a shot. According to Santiago, the results were artistic and unlike any other fashion photography ever created so much so that the photographs were exhibited at a New York gallery.

Santiago eventually moved to San Diego and the Polaroid’s came with him, ending up secreted away in a box for 30 years – until now.

The Agency opens to the public on May 4 and runs until June 15.


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Posted by on May 2, 2013. Filed under The Arts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

1 Comment for “The photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe”

  1. Katherine Sweetman

    Here is a video of Alfredo Santiago telling the story of these rare Robert Mapplethorpe fashion Polaroids: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oHggYL6c3bU

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