This is a black and white portrait photograph of John McKendry, a former curator of prints and photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Only half of McKendry’s face is actually visible, the other half having been cropped out of the picture. The visible half of his face occupies almost the entire length of the right-hand edge of the print; his chin points towards the lower corner while his tousled hair rises up to the top corner. His skin is slathered in moisturiser creating an oily sheen, while his mouth is slightly open and his eye looks upwards. Directly behind McKendry’s head is a white wall. To the top left of the image are two metal plug sockets, one of which has a cord plugged into it. The cord hangs down towards the bottom edge of the picture creating a vertical line that parallels the vertical cropping of the curator’s face.
This photograph was taken by Robert Mapplethorpe at St Clare’s hospital, New York, the day before McKendry died of complications relating to liver disease, from which he suffered due to excessive drinking and drug taking throughout his life. McKendry had asked Mapplethorpe to visit him in the hospital and to bring his camera with him. When Mapplethorpe arrived with singer Patti Smith, a lifelong friend of the photographer, McKendry was applying Royal Jelly moisturiser to his face. After he had finished he looked up at Mapplethorpe and told him, ‘I’m ready for my picture now’ (cited in Morrisroe 1995, p.152). For ten minutes Mapplethorpe took various shots while the curator’s attention drifted. According to Mapplethorpe’s biographer Patricia Morrisroe, the photographer was greatly affected by the intensity of photographing a dying man and left quickly.
Mapplethorpe first met McKendry in 1971 when he attended a dinner party thrown by McKendry and his wife, Maxime de la Falaise, a prominent figure in New York’s high society. McKendry and Mapplethorpe immediately became friends, with the former acting as a mentor and patron to the emerging photographer. Mapplethorpe was greatly inspired by McKendry, who granted him access to the vaults of the Metropolitan Museum where the photography collection was housed. It was from these visits that Mapplethorpe began to consider photography as an artistic medium: ‘Looking at those photographs made me think photography maybe could be art. I had never thought about that before, but now I found myself getting excited about the possibilities.’ (Mapplethorpe quoted in Morrisroe 1995, p.108.)
Mapplethorpe photographed McKendry on another occasion in 1971, when the curator invited Mapplethorpe to accompany him on a trip to Britain. The photographer took a shot of McKendry in a bathtub at the Welsh home of Alexis de la Falaise, McKendry’s stepson. The curator’s wife was livid when she received word of this photograph as McKendry had an inappropriate fascination with her son Alexis, and she was furious that he had taken Mapplethorpe to the house while her son and his family were there. McKendry was also fascinated with Mapplethorpe, although the love he had for the photographer was unrequited and contributed to the curator’s extreme mood swings. As Patti Smith recalled, it was not only the curator’s longing for Mapplethorpe that triggered moments of depression but a deep self-loathing which led to his eventual self-destruction (Smith 2010, p.191).
This photograph is one of Mapplethorpe’s most uncharacteristic portraits. Morrisroe has noted that the photographer usually preferred to keep a distance between himself and his subject, but that this was ‘impossible when confronting the searing image of a dying man’ (Morrisroe 1995, p.152). The extreme cropping poignantly evokes the imminence of McKendry’s death as though he is slipping away, while the socket on the wall more directly points to his hospitalisation and imbues the image with a sense that the plug is about to be pulled on his life. This somber undertone was palpable to the curator’s wife who was ‘shattered’ by the image: ‘When I saw the photograph I realised how wrong I had been. John was dying, and Robert had captured him in his tiny room, in his little corner of Hell.’ (Maxime de la Falaise cited in Morrisroe 1995, p.153.)
Patrcia Morrisroe, Mapplethorpe. A Biography, London 1995.
Patti Smith, Just Kids, London 2010.
Susan Mc Ateer
University of Edinburgh
The University of Edinburgh is a research partner of ARTIST ROOMS.