This black and white photograph features the model Bob Love in a close-up, three-quarter profile. The frame is cropped so that only Love’s head and shoulders are visible, filling the frame as he turns his head to the right, his eyes fixed on the camera lens. The photograph exploits deep contrasts of light and shade, with a particularly stark difference between parts of the face and shoulder – which show a reflective sheen – and the darkness of the neck and back and top of the head. The photograph is one of several Mapplethorpe produced with Love as the subject. Another of these, taken in the same year as Bob Love and given the same title (Tate AR01140), depicts Love naked upon a pedestal, with his legs spread and his penis on display. Both works demonstrate the artist’s concern to portray the sculptural beauty of the human form. The contrasts of light and shade appear to give the sitter’s body the permanence and lustre of a classical bronze statue.
According to his biographer, Patricia Morrisroe, Mapplethorpe began to photograph black men around 1979 (Morrisroe 1995, p.234). As Morrisroe writes, the artist found that ‘he could extract a greater richness from the colour of their skin’ (Morrisroe 1995, p.234). In particular, the tonal range between the highlights and the shadows was more dramatic. Mapplethorpe’s decision to photograph black men made him more particular about the quality of his photographic prints than he had previously been. Taking a cue from classical sculpture, he expected black skin to approximate the colour of bronze and instructed his printer to selectively darken his pictures accordingly. Mapplethorpe’s desire to photograph black men was partly motivated by sexual fascination.
Mapplethorpe’s photographs of black male nudes – with their emphasis on muscular physiques and physical attributes including the penis – have been criticised for exploiting racial stereotypes and objectifying their models. As the black gay writer and activist Essex Hemphill has commented: ‘it is virtually impossible to view Mapplethorpe’s photos of black males and avoid confronting issues of exploitation and objectification.’ (Quoted in Ellenzweig 1992, p.138.) These accusations have been countered by critics such as Edmund White however, who view the images as reverential representations of the body. Recognising that his work might be interpreted as racist, Mapplethorpe offered his own perspective to David Hershkovits in the Soho Weekly News in May 1981, ‘It has to be racist. I’m white and they are black. There is a difference somehow, but it doesn’t have to be negative. Is there any difference in approaching a black man who doesn’t have clothes on and a white man who doesn’t have clothes on? Not really, it’s form and what you see into that and do with it. I do the same thing. I’m not trying to do it a different way.’ (Quoted in Morrisroe 1995, p.236.)
Allen Ellenzweig, The Homoerotic Photograph: Male Images from Durieu/Delacroix to Mapplethorpe, New York 1992.
Patricia Morrisroe, Mapplethorpe: A Biography, London 1995.
The University of Edinburgh
The University of Edinburgh is a research partner of ARTIST ROOMS.