In this black and white square-format double photographic portrait two leather-clad men, identified in the title as Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter, are situated in a living room. The two men are positioned in the centre of the photograph. Ridley is seated in a leather wingback armchair, with chains attached to his ankles and wrists. He is shackled to Heeter, who stands to his left, resting his right elbow on the armchair and lightly grasping in his right hand the chain attached to the leather collar around Ridley’s neck. Both figures are wearing leather jackets, trousers and boots. Heeter is also wearing a leather cap, and holds in his left hand a riding crop which rests upon the armchair pointing down towards Ridley’s crotch. Ridley sits with his legs wide open and his hands resting in his lap, while Heeter stands casually above him with his right leg crossed in front of his left. Ridley and Heeter both fix the camera with intense stares. The room in which they are depicted has all the features of a conventional living room, including curtains, venetian blinds, an oriental carpet, an ornamental clock and a table lamp. The lamp, which is on, projects Heeter’s shadow onto the wall behind Ridley.
The apparent normality of the conventionally decorated living room contrasts strongly with the two imposing figures in their harsh leather clothing. The clothing identifies Ridley and Heeter with the gay S&M scene, a subculture which represented a type of behaviour as well as an adopted style or attitude, often associated with leather and bondage. A feature of the scene was erotic partnerships characterised by the dominance of one partner (often referred to as the ‘master’) and the submissiveness of the other (often referred to as the ‘slave’). In this photograph it is clear that Ridley is the ‘slave’ and that Heeter, with his crop, the ‘master’.
The artist was a sympathetic participant in sadomasochistic subculture. As Patti Smith, Mapplethorpe’s lifelong friend, records in her memoir: ‘Robert was not a voyeur. He always said that he had to be authentically involved with the work that came out of his S&M pursuit’ (Smith 2010, p.235). Through his photographs Mapplethorpe intended to bestow dignity and beauty upon a subject that was considered outside accepted norms of behaviour. In an interview with Dominick Dunne in Vanity Fair magazine, Mapplethorpe said: ‘most of the people in S&M were proud of what they were doing. It was giving pleasure to one another. It was not about hurting.’ (Quoted in Danto 1996, p.39.)
This work is one of a number of photographs made by Mapplethorpe to record the sadomasochistic subculture which fascinated him. Many of these works, such as Dominick and Elliot (Tate AR00199), were sexually explicit, depicting an array of sadomasochistic practices, from penis piercing to anal penetration with a bull-whip. Unlike Mapplethorpe’s other S&M works, Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter is not sexually explicit. This photograph is also unusual for its humour deployed in the contrast between the couple’s sadomasochistic outfitting and their domestic interior.
The close relationship between the artist and his subjects might be inferred from the fact that the subjects have disclosed their names. This might also suggest that they trusted the artist to portray them with respect. As the American art critic Arthur C. Danto writes: ‘they could display their leather gear and shiny chains with pride. They trusted the artist not to make them look like fools, to show them as they would wish to be shown’ (Danto 1996, p.42).
Richard Meyer, ‘Imagining Sadomasochism: Robert Mapplethorpe and the Masquerade of Photography’, Qui Parle, vol.4, no.1, Autumn 1990, pp.62–78.
Arthur C. Danto, Playing with the Edge: The Photographic Achievement of Robert Mapplethorpe, Berkeley and London 1996.
Patti Smith, Just Kids, London 2010.
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