In this week’s #IntoTheDarkRoom our writer Alessia Scacchi looks at the controversial American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. While he was known by and large for his agitating visual images, Alessia Scacchi considers a work that seeks to agitate thought processes regarding the traditional categorization of men and women.
Robert Mapplethorp (1946-1989) was an American photographer, known for the extreme and provocative subjects he explored in his photography. He was a lover of black and white, devoted to photographic technique, and well aware of the importance and the study of light. On the 08 03 18 marking International Women’s Day, I want to analyze his image depicting former model and bodybuilder Lisa Lyon (1953).
His personal life and the aura surrounding him is much closer to that of a rockstar than to that of a photographer. The use of drugs, homosexuality, relationships with the show business, death due to AIDS: his biography is marked by eroticism and from provocation.
In 1967 he met and subsequently had a relationhsip with the singer Patti Smith (1946). The relationship lasted for years, and was described poetically in the book Just Kids (2010), (written by Patti Smith). Covers and photographs of the singer are obviously the result of collaborations with Robert.
While Robert Mapplethorp’s personal life courted press, it is in his work where he received the most attention. His images of; nudes,homosexual black boys, scenes with explicit content and sadomasochism are, uncomfortable and at the same intriguing. Indeed one can find not repulsion rather attraction for the sense of balance and harmony. Such is the technical and creative capacity of Robert Mapplethorpe, that he is able to make (for some) what would be visually disturbing seem beautiful, fascinating and refined. Of course, the contrasts of light are strong but this has nothing to do with naivety. It is all a question of light, of film study, of compositional ability. Robert Mapplethorpe challenges the spectator to face the secret part of himself. To clash with the differences. To reflect on the dark side more or less present in each of us.
Surface scrutiny of the image (at first glance) is anything other than controversial or explicit. It is however the topicality of this photographer from the past that is significant. The image taken in 1982 marked the birth of the internet. At the time, the world still did not have access to today’s great quantity of images and information. The photograph depicts the profile of a woman’s body. The face and the clothing, as well as the flowers on the hat let us know the subject is a woman. Conversely however the muscularity, the proud attitude, and the gestures refer to the characteristics commonly attributed to the male gender. The image implies her background in body building but at the same time it talks about gender ambivalence.
The fashion world, always attentive to the social changes of the time, has recently accepted the presence of curvy models on the passarelle, and later trans models. In 2015, the model Peche Di founded the Trans Model Agency in New York. But Robert Mapplethorpe some 40 years earlier was already discussing and challenging fashion’s ideas of beauty.
Robert Mapplethorpe some 40 years earlier was already discussing and challenging fashion’s ideas of beauty.
A black leather dress is the undisputed link with the world of fetish, the hat brings floral signs related to the female world but the black tissue covering the face is a sign of partial mourning towards the female part of the subject. She decided to sacrifice it, to kill it consciously in favor of her bodybuilding career. The conscious distortion of the natural body. The expression is not happy but hard and aware. The tissue leaves a glimpse of the musculature of the neck. By focusing on this detail, we can not anymore be sure of a gender uniqueness. The image is descriptive, but also symbolic. The white flower on the hat refers to the origin of a delicacy still alive, but hidden from the other white element that plays as a visual counterweight in the picture: that of her arm.
Do we feel attracted to this figure? Do we have the perception that it is a woman or do we think of the figure in terms of a person? Are we talking about a sacrifice or an act of liberation? Even today, this photograph challenges us to reflect on the meaning of a day dedicated to the celebration of a sexual gender. Does it really still make sense to talk about men and women as opposites? Just as the information of the contemporary world follows a taxonomy more and more articulated, how outdated is the need for a classification, for a target, for watertight compartments?
The figure is in profile. ‘We’ are not yet ready to support her direct gaze?