This black and white photograph is a portrait of Iggy Pop, the American musician and actor often referred to as the ‘Godfather of Punk’. The tight cropping of the photograph ensures only Pop’s head and bare shoulders are visible against a plain grey background. Pop faces the camera with wide open eyes and an apparently gasping mouth revealing his crooked lower teeth. His short, dark, tousled hair frames his face and neck.
This portrait was taken when Pop was thirty-four years old, during which time he was struggling as a solo artist and suffered from persistent drug problems. The musician was known for his drug taking and for his unpredictable behaviour. In this image Mapplethorpe appears to capture Pop’s intense energy, photographing a moment of alertness, or in the words of Mapplethorpe’s biographer Patricia Morrisroe, a ‘live-for-the-moment immediacy’ (Morrisroe 1995, p.267).
Morrisroe noted that Mapplethorpe experimented with various drugs and was a habitual cocaine user, often taking it while working and offering it to his sitters. As such the wide-eyed cocaine induced stare became a characteristic of Mapplethorpe’s portraits, and while drug taking may not have been involved in all cases, the photographer seemed to strive for this effect. Indeed in 1977 the magazine ARTnews praised Mapplethorpe for his ability to create ‘light effects that are the visual equivalents of certain psychological states induced by cocaine’ (cited in Morrisroe 1995, p.267). It is not known whether cocaine was taken by Pop during the shoot for this portrait, although considering his relationship with drugs at the time and the animated expression he wears, it is a possibility.
Portraits form a substantial part of Mapplethorpe’s oeuvre and they often follow a similar format, consisting of a close up against a plain background. Referring to an interview between Mapplethorpe and the writer Susan Sontag, literary critic Richard Howard noted that the photographer tried to find ‘that part of the subject which is self confident’, which is by no means ‘a part of which the subject is readily conscious’ (Howard 1988, p.156). Knowing that Iggy Pop was struggling with his career and his drug habits, this portrait, which depicts Pop in a startled and somewhat apprehensive state, could be said to reflect the psychological turmoil that the musician was suffering from at the time.
Robert Miller, a New York art dealer who represented Mapplethorpe, has remarked upon this particular portrait: ‘Every time I look at it I’m moved, and I guess alerted to the human condition. Well, I’m not going to say what that condition is but ... it sends out a signal of alertness to me; pay attention, time’s going by.’ (Cited in Arena: Robert Mapplethorpe, 18 March 1988.)
Richard Howard, ‘The Mapplethorpe Effect’, in Richard Marshall (ed.), Robert Mapplethorpe, London 1988.
Arena: Robert Mapplethorpe, dir. by Nigel Finch, BBC television documentary, 18 March 1988.
Patricia Morrisroe, Mapplethorpe. A Biography, London 1995.
Susan Mc Ateer
University of Edinburgh
The University of Edinburgh is a research partner of ARTIST ROOMS.