The name Robert Mapplethorpe evokes images of stylized, black and white photographs of celebrities and nudes of women and men. Mapplethorpe is also associated with controversy due to the sometimes graphic depictions of sexuality in his work. I recently headed to Toronto to view an exhibition of the artist’s work at the Olga Korper Gallery. A sense of the impersonal – even a certain severity – are immediately impressed upon the viewer by the black and white prints arrayed in white frames in a spacious white room in an old brick building. Statuesque figures strikingly posed in unnatural positions expressionlessly stare out at the viewer from these photographs. Sharp degree angles are created by positioning his subjects in angular and symmetrical poses. In Britta, the subject sits in a straight-backed chair, her arms creating diagonal lines while bending her knees so sharp angles protrude. I was rooted to the spot by the grounded confidence which this photograph exudes. Though a dynamic sense of movement is conveyed in the composition of these photographs, there is also a stationary, even static quality to these works.
In comparison to the photographs of B.D. Colen, a London based photographer featured in Centred.ca in March 2019, the frozen artifice of Mapplethorpe’s work becomes even more strikingly evident. Colen’s work features scenes of social unrest and famine abroad as well as more localized street photography that focuses on themes of everyday life and isolation within the city. Smitten with the love of photography as a child, after entering college to study photography, he was sidetracked into a journalistic career, specializing in a medical and scientific beat. Colen began his career reporting on medical subjects such as HIV/AIDS, the ‘right to die’ movement and important inner-city health-related issues. Assigned to cover the 1993 famine in Somalia as a medical reporter, he nonetheless took as many photographs as he could on the side and has continued to do photography for non-governmental organizations.
Due to union prohibitions which didn’t allow the same reporter to write and photograph, Colen turned to photographing everyday life, including city scenes and his own domestic life. He describes himself as a photographer of the mundane little moments that make up our lives. For over a decade Colen also photographed scenes from the Boston subway as well as his commute from London, Ontario to Boston where he taught science journalism and documentary photography at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Colen investigated the concept of isolation within the midst of crowds in his photographs of Boston subway scenes, showing how people manage their sense of isolation in a public space.
Upon graduating from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn with a B.F.A., Mapplethorpe produced work in a variety of media, including collage, but quite early on decided to focus more exclusively on photography. This grew out of his preference to use his own photographs in the collages he made. During the mid-‘70s he began using the Polaroid Robert Mapplethorpecamera to photograph artists, socialites, pornography stars, members of the S&M underground and an array of personal friends. It was during the early 80’s that Mapplethorpe’s photography shifted into images of classical depictions of beauty and this included floral still life’s, nudes and formal portraits.
This stylized aesthetic runs through all of the works in this exhibition. This is not only due to the significant linear aspects and the sculptural-like forms and figures, but also because the expressions of the figures appear so similar to one another. They stare unapologetically at the viewer with a total indifference that it would be easy enough to construe as total defiance. The subjects in these photographs are presented with razor-sharp definition in the resolution of the images. There is no room for confusion or mystification. Posed in costumes and sometimes holding props, these figures exist only to be seen but not as individuals in their own right. They express a particular statement through their body language and lack of expression. They reveal what Mapplethorpe wants them to express, and apart from that, these crisp, clear, high-contrast images, reveal nothing.
Through these photographs, often displaying sexual and phallic forms and merging the cues we commonly associate with men or women, Mapplethorpe is making statements about defying gender and social constructs about what femininity and masculinity are. This can be seen in Derrick Cross (1983) and Lisa Lyon 1980. The themes surrounding sex and sexuality in Mapplethorpe’s work tends to refer to homosexuality, androgyny, sadomasochism and pornography. He explicitly reveals what is socially regarded as taboo and subversive.
Colen’s photographs, which are in both black and white and colour, depict the reality of difficult situations and the mundanity of everyday existence. He captures images of the suffering experienced after a collapsed infrastructure in the aftermath of civil war in Somalia, 1993, and zeroes in on the pain of loneliness that is seemingly inherent in living in a big city in ‘Alone Together’. The similarity between the photographs of Colen and Mapplethorpe might not seem so apparent at first but they are both driven to expose and reveal something that is usually suppressed or hidden from public view. Their images bring these aspects of life and society into public focus.
Both artists utilize elements of naturalism and artifice in different ways. A consistent element in all of Mapplethorpe’s photographs is the element of artifice. The artificial studio environment, the artificial lighting, the carefully manipulated poses and the expressionless faces, ultimately become shells or facades. It seems as if the figures presented – even the celebrities – exist as little more than props themselves; as if they were mannequins rather than complex, living and breathing human beings.
In treating his subjects as objects, Mapplethorpe presents his commentary on objectification and celebrity in our culture. Devoid of any depth, existing only to be visually consumed and nothing else, his images are literal displays of objectification. These images are concerned only with the surface, of what is shown or presented and manipulated in this way or that to create a specific statement. There is no personalization in these photographs. They reveal nothing about the individuals or celebrities who pose for them; impressing only their public personas upon the viewer who is left to construe whatever meanings are put upon these figures through these personas.
For Colen, the individual’s struggle through personal circumstances creates the entirety of meaning within his photographs. He is presenting in his works what actually is – without any manipulation of the individuals or scenes that he is capturing. His images are too blunt and direct to create any artifice. They reveal to the viewer the truth of what is happening in a particular society or place to the people that happen to live there.
When Mapplethorpe was creating collages after leaving college, he created compositions using components taken from various sources, integrating them to form a final image. This technique is used in his photographs as well as he consciously assembles every component and aspect of these photographs to the point where they ultimately culminate in a final, cohesive but strikingly unnatural image. This runs counter to the conventional and traditional usage of photography which is concerned with immediacy, with capturing a moment in time that exposes what is happening and reveals a truth. This is how Colen utilizes photography, documenting experiences and truths, no matter how unpleasant. Mapplethorpe’s work instead explores an underlying paradox; though they are carefully manipulated and artificial in their assembly, they still create statements that refer to truths which are socially hidden and suppressed as taboos. Mapplethorpe’s photographs don’t expose what is happening in the scene they depict. Instead, the figures he manipulates and photographs create scripted statements that don’t reveal so much as tell us what is happening in society.
Despite the dynamic poses of the forms and figures he photographs – and even though his subject matter may fascinate Mapplethorpe personally – I was struck by how his works do not appear celebratory at all. They are almost lifeless facades of subject matter, with environments one cannot enter and subjects that are not to be interacted with. Despite the invisible wall that is therefore created, there is nonetheless a powerful presence to these figures. Colen’s photographs are also non-celebratory, but they are nonetheless animated with the everyday movement of life itself and with a dynamism not created from the positioning of his subject matter but deriving from the circumstances surrounding the subject matter he captures.
Overall, despite their differences as photographers, Colen and Mapplethorpe converge on their separate journeys to make evident to the viewer their understanding of ‘truth’. The photography of both men is informed by their background experiences. Those backgrounds may seem universes apart, but Colen’s more spontaneous journalistic documentation and Mapplethorpe’s more formal and deliberate artifice, ultimately serve the same goal when they coalesce into such powerful, final images.