Mapplethorpe: Look at the pictures


Scandal suited Robert Mapplethorpe. He wore it proudly, like a scarlet cloak. . .

That notoriety has evolved, these days, into a hushed, academic reverence. His photographs are not produced in court on charges of obscenity now, but hang on the walls of major galleries around the world (the National Gallery of Australia owns over 60 of them). The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation sells tasteful notecards and Limoges porcelain decorated with his images of flowers. Despite this latter-day respectability, we should never ignore the power of his images to brutally shock and challenge how we view our bodies and ourselves. A new documentary film from Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, released in Australia this month, is an important reminder of his importance as an artist who used a camera.

Mapplethorpe was a complex, ruthlessly ambitious figure: an egoistic pansexual charmer, more than willing to use relationships to further his career. This is as nothing, however, next to his mastery of photography. Whatever his subject, the image – always in black-and-white – creates a still space around it, compelling the viewer’s contemplation and challenging us to see it (and our response) afresh.

Mapplethorpe first came to prominence for portraits taken when he was living with Patti Smith at New York’s Chelsea Hotel in the 1970s: not only of Smith’s fellow-musicians like Iggy Pop, Deborah Harry, and Laurie Anderson, but established figures, including Truman Capote, William Burroughs, and Susan Sontag. He was soon a sought-after portraitist. There were his exquisite photographs of flowers too, familiar now from ubiquitous calendars and posters. It was photography of the human body, though, which Mapplethorpe commanded as his own terrain.

Between zoology and pornography lies – sprawls – the art of the nude.

Mapplethorpe refused to acknowledge any distinction between these categories, judging the tasteful ‘artistic’ nude a hypocritical fiction which denied an essential part of our humanity. As Sir Kenneth Clarke acknowledged in his seminal study on the topic, ‘No nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even if it be only the faintest shadow – and if it does not do so it is bad art and false morals’.

There is often more than ‘vestigial’ erotic feeling aroused by Mapplethorpe’s nude studies, mostly of beautiful, young black men.

‘Photography and sexuality have a lot in common,’ he explains. ‘Both are question marks, and that’s precisely what excites me most in life.’

Friends and lovers, dancers, porn stars, and body builders (including Arnold Schwarzenegger) were all called before his camera to create images full of this questioning. Whatever is pictured – however shocking – has an anatomical exactitude emphasised by the lighting, by the precision of black-and-white film, and most of all by Mapplethorpe’s skill with the camera. Each image invites contemplation. The poses are often reminiscent of classical statuary, with an abstract beauty of form, heads cropped out so that a face does not distract from our focus on the naked body. The studies of body builder, Lisa Lyon, are typical. Lisa is sexually provocative as she poses naked but for a wedding veil or coating of dried mud, yet also challenges the viewer’s reaction as she simultaneously flexes her enormous muscles. Is this art? A porn shoot? A bodybuilder’s catalogue?  The only answer is yes to all, and more . . .

Many of Mapplethorpe’s images are far more overtly erotic. Acts of sexual penetration and nudes with erect penises are recorded with the same skill, dispassionate curiosity, and artistic gaze as Mapplethorpe gives to the unfurling petals of an orchid. Patti Smith comments on these photographs, ‘As Cocteau said of a Genet poem, “His obscenity is never obscene”‘.

In 1989, the refusal of Washington DC’s Corcoran Gallery to display an exhibition of Mapplethorpe’s photographs sparked a national controversy in the US about art and obscenity. Senator Jesse Helms fulminated publicly about the images, dismissing them as ‘blasphemy’. In the following years, reproductions of his photographs were periodically confiscated as illegal pornography, including a seizure by South Australia Police in 2000. In all cases, the photographs were eventually judged to be not ‘obscene’ and returned. In response to this condemnation, some critics have described his images in defensive, highly aesthetic language, rhapsodising in precious terms about how they resemble Renaissance paintings.

The perceptions of Mapplethorpe’s photographs as both pornographic and deeply serious art are actually both true. He intended these images to be challenging. ‘He loved to get a jolt out of people,’ recalls a friend in the documentary. In doing so, he dares us to contemplate these scenes innocently, without judgement, and to examine our own tumble of responses: shock, arousal, curiosity, awe, and even humour. In the words of Roman dramatist, Terence, Mapplethorpe’s challenge to the viewer is, ‘I am human; nothing human is strange to me’.

When Jesse Helms waved a sheaf of Mapplethorpe’ photographs in the US Senate, excoriating their obscenity, he shouted, ‘Just look at the pictures!’ as though this were enough to condemn them. In a fitting irony, film makers, Bailey and Barbato, have taken Helms at his word, and used the phrase as the title of their new documentary.

Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures is showing at Palace Cinemas in Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide during May and June 2016, as part of the Essential Independents: American Cinema Now series.



Image: Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation



For five year-old Nahla Berry, going to school in the morning is an ordeal.
It’s always stressful and sometimes frightening.

From their front door to the schoolyard, she and her mother are regularly harassed by photographers crowding around them and calling out their names. Nahla calls them simply ‘the men’.

Nahla’s mother is Hollywood actor, Halle Berry. She recently testified before the California State Assembly, supporting a bill to protect children like Nahla from the attention of paparazzi. I don’t fancy her chances in the land of the free. The photographers’ real target is the actor herself, of course. And the reason they follow Berry on the school run is to get a picture of her without makeup, looking as much as possible like – well – a real person. This is now a regular feature in supermarket magazines and a host of websites are dedicated to ‘shocking, nearly unrecognisable pictures of your favorite stars’.

What lies behind the bizarre public fascination with ‘stars without makeup’?

The obsession with ‘stars’ (actors and others who work in the public eye) has been around since at least the 1930s. They are treated like gods in ancient Greek mythology: powerful, beautiful, flawed creatures who act out our inner lives in a magnificent, neverending melodrama. Archetypes abound. The Good Mother. The Loveable Bad Boy.The Ice Queen. The Jealous Wife. The Strange One. (I leave you to fill in the names.) Hollywood stars are chimerical like the gods: despised one week; forgiven and embraced the next. Their bodies, too, seem to shrink and expand fantastically on a regular basis (if the cover of New Idea is to be believed.) It can be hard to remember that these are ordinary people, albeit with a very public way of earning a living.

milakunisMila Kunis

‘Stars without makeup’ is a cruel refinement of this obsession. There’s an element of schadenfreude here. A bitter pleasure in seeing that the mighty have feet of clay – or at least, bags under their eyes and spots on their faces at times, just like everyone else.

There’s a curiosity about the ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ juxtaposition. It fascinates to see that glamorous creature from the Oscars out shopping in her tracky dacks. I’m reminded of a hologram card I had as a child, on which Superman flickered into dull Clark Kent then reverted to the superhero as you turned it back and forth. Intrusion into private lives is turned into a spectacle, a masque in which the mighty are brought down and thrown up again on a weekly cycle.

sharonSharon Stone

There is a sadder, more poignant aspect to this modern preoccupation. ‘This could be you . . .’ the pictures whisper. ‘You’re as good as they are.’ As with the strange manifestations of reality TV, a hollow aspirational message is conveyed that – given a chance – anyone can be famous (regardless of talent, hard work, or appearance). Look, the pictures say: these people aren’t that much different to you in the harsh light of day. You too can be a star.

It is, of all people, Karl Marx who suggests a partial explanation for this obsession. In a consumerist society, he argued, many of our natural attributes are alienated from us into products which we have to ‘buy back’. We no longer produce our own music, but buy it as MP4 files. Sexuality is ‘alienated’ as a natural attribute, and sold back, commodified through pornography or ‘sex toys’. Dignity is put on with a dress or a suit. With the right accessories. The right mobile phone. We feel incomplete without a panoply of products and brands which help to define us.

umaUma Thurman

The unearthly standard of beauty in popular magazines reminds the lowly readers daily of their supposed inadequacy and the need to buy more. This is not simply due to the dynamics of capitalist society however. Like the urge to shop, this dissatisfaction only responds to a deeper, underlying anxiety about who we are. ‘Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is,’ wrote Camus.

It is essentially human to be discontented with who we are and what we have. For all of us, nothing is ever quite good enough. We want more. We want newer. We want better.

‘Stars without makeup’ reflects this yearning. It reminds us in a very personal way of the spotted reality of our lives, and the icons of perfection to which we aspire in so many ways. Even urgings to ‘embrace the present’ ironically express the longing for a different life. This innate dissatisfaction – the constant desire for something better – can often be depressing to contemplate. At other times, though, it seems exciting – the root of all progress and improvement in society and ourselves. We are all stars without makeup.

Rennie Ellis vs The Anti-Sex League

An exhibition of prints by Rennie Ellis at Mossgreen Gallery features photographs taken in the clubs of St Kilda and the Cross. Strippers on stage and off. Drag queens. Exotic acts (think naked dancer, snake). The equally exotic moustaches of the MCs.

The years since Ellis died in 2003 have seen a surprising resurgence of the Anti-Sex League in Australia. Who would have thought? Another of the surprises which the twenty-first century sprang on us. In George Orwell’s 1984,  the Anti-Sex League worked to combat ‘sexcrime’ – any sexual activity apart from ‘intercourse between man and wife, for the sole purpose of begetting children, and without physical pleasure on the part of the woman’. These words might have been written in the fourth century by that original killjoy, St Augustine. As we know the spirit of the League lives on in fundamentalist religious cultures today, where a raped girl is stoned to death for ‘adultery’ with her attacker. Even in the United States, the current hot issue in national politics is not employment or the economy, but whether President Obama will allow Americans to receive contraceptive advice under private health policies, if their employers regard it as ‘sinful’.

‘Absolutely revolting . . .’

Remember back in 2008 when the Rosyln Oxley Gallery was raided by police, and works by one of Australia’s most respected artists seized? (Bill Henson also had to endure the Prime Minister of the day, Kevin Rudd, calling his work ‘absolutely revolting’ and of ‘no artistic value’.) No case was found, so the NSW Government changed the law so that ‘Artistic Purpose’ is no longer a defence against a charge of pornography. The Federal Government has been dogged in pursuing an Internet Censorship Filter – sold to the public as blocking child pornography (who could argue?) –  but now extended to a growing list of sexual and other material claimed to ‘offend against the standards of morality’. Since then we have also had the hysterical attacks on legalisation of marriage for all people, and the sacking of ministers and political candidates in Queensland and New South Wales for ‘non-regular’ sexual behaviour. OK, you want to know, don’t you? Visiting a gay brothel (NSW) and attending a ‘swingers’ party’ (QLD).

Perhaps evoking Orwell’s Anti-Sex League doesn’t seem so far-fetched. The most terrifying aspect of 1984, after all, is not political, but the State’s attack on the very existence of private life.

Currying favour with evangelical swinging voters (not the QLD kind) is part of the story, but current policies reflect genuine convictions among politicians too, many of whom have strong religious beliefs. Yet what lies behind this belief that the government has a right to judge and control essentially private, personal activities which do no harm? To  poke about in its citizens’ pants? (What blogger and sexual commentator, ultra-hedonist, calls the panicked ‘gagging response’ to forms of sexuality which make them feel uncomfortable.) We see here, surely, the conviction – familiar from two thousand years of Christianity – that the body and sex are intrinsically shameful, and the more that sexuality varies from the ‘norm’, the more shameful it is, and in need of control.

How curious and sad it is to view the human form in this way, for we are our bodies – embodied beings – and turning against it in this way is a kind of self-hatred, a hatred sometimes turned against others.

Rennie Ellis’s photographs are a refreshing contrast to these attitudes.

The images in This is the Show  (large silver-gelatin or C-type prints) are extraordinary, intimate portraits of people who worked in strip clubs during the 1970s and 1980s. Ellis was a superb photographer, both technically and as an artist. (It’s no surprise that his works hang in overseas collections as well as at the National Gallery of Australia, National Portrait Gallery, and many State collections.) They are wide-eyed, entirely non-judgmental images, delighting in the variety, idiosyncrasy and beauty of people and their behaviour in all its forms.

Some images show the ‘exotic dancers’ backstage, matter-of-factly chatting and smoking as they prepare for the show, entirely comfortable with their nudity. The relaxed grace of their limbs is like that of the ballet dancers in Degas’ backstage paintings. Some show the club entrances with their marquee lights and signage: ‘Action shows!’, ‘A Thrill a minute!’, followed by a bathetic ‘Warm inside’. Other photographs reveal a delicate beauty, as in Lady Medina 1977, a poignant close-up of the naked stripper, her face glistening with make-up beneath which a rash of spots can be made out. Dark eyes stare out at the viewer, as if to say, ‘Yes, I am a person, just like you.’

In contrast to the Anti-Sex League and its real-life followers, Rennie Ellis’ attitude – implicit in these images and all his work – lies in the words of the Roman writer, Terence, which Bruce Chatwin revered and chalked up boldly on his wall:

I am human; nothing human is alien to me.

Gothic Melbourne

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne, in a dark and nineteenth century mood.

Experimenting with the BW setting on my Leica DL2 on a winter’s morning.

Slow Photography

A thoughtful article by Tim Wu in Slate argues for ‘slow photography,’ a focus on creating a moment rather than the doomed effort to frantically grab it as time slips by. From being something to record special times, the ease of digital photography means we now use cameras differently – to record everyday moments.

This is a huge shift, but Wu doesn’t make a Luddite argument against digital cameras or ’happy snapping’. This is a process which began with the Kodak Box Brownie in the last century, of course. Rather, he reminds us of the difference, and how satisfying it is to take the time to create a good photograph, rather than fire away at everything in sight, using the viewfinder instead of your eyes.