This black and white photograph is a portrait of Nick Biens, who Robert Mapplethorpe met in 1977. Biens sits in three-quarter profile with his head turned to face the camera. He is topless but holds his studded leather jacket, which is slung over his left shoulder, with clasped hands. The top of his leather trousers and a metallic belt can be seen at the bottom edge of the image. Biens wears a strong yet sullen expression and boasts a dark, trimmed beard and two visible tattoos: a flaming skull on his forehead and a profile head and neck of a man wearing a leather cap on his left bicep. He casts a shadow on the white wall behind him that emphasises his square jaw.
This portrait was taken in the same year that Mapplethorpe met Biens at a S&M nightclub in New York called Mineshaft. At this time Mapplethorpe was particularly interested in taking photographs of sadomasochistic sexual practices and the individuals who practised them. However, his images of this period were considered relatively tame in S&M circles, and Biens referred to them as being an ‘artsified version of S&M. They’re not like photographs snapped during an actual scene’ (Biens cited in Morrisroe 1995, p.191). Mapplethorpe took many portraits of Biens, who, according to Mapplethorpe’s biographer Patricia Morrisroe, had ‘the menacing demeanor of a pit bull, and his swarthy face, with its dark brows and black eyes, was made even more ominous by the flaming skull tattoo on his forehead’ (Morrisroe 1995, p.190).
The tattoo on Biens’s bicep closely resembles an illustration by Tom of Finland, a Finnish artist whose real name was Touko Laaksonen. Tom of Finland had a huge influence on gay visual culture in the second half of the twentieth century with his homoerotic and pornographic illustrations, many of which featured leather clad men. It is not certain whether Biens copied a specific illustration for his tattoo, but considering the widespread circulation of Tom of Finland’s work at the time it is highly likely that Biens was at least inspired by these images.
Mapplethorpe was gay and actively engaged in the S&M scene himself during the mid to late 1970s. He frequented many gay bars and clubs in the Meatpacking district of New York City including the Mineshaft, which was considered the ‘definitive S&M club’ (Morrisroe 1995, p.189). Art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto has described the ‘leather look, the peaked cap, the flaunted biceps’ which Biens displays in this portrait as strategies of ‘attractiveness and self-definition’ within the gay community as a means of distancing themselves from the connotations of effeminacy often associated with homosexuality (Danto 1996, p.97). Mapplethorpe took portraits of many other members of the S&M New York scene including Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter (see Tate AR00196).
This portrait of Biens appeared in Certain People, a photobook published in 1985 with an essay by the cultural critic Susan Sontag. For this book Mapplethorpe included portraits of individuals from the two social spectrums of New York with which he was engaged, that of ‘New York squalor’ and ‘New York glamour’ (Morrisroe 1995, p.297). As such it featured portraits of the wealthy who belonged to the art world or high society, such as Doris Saatchi and Francesca Thyssen (Tate AR00156), as well as celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger (Tate AR00213), alongside people such as Biens and portraits of strippers and porn dealers.
Robert Mapplethorpe: Certain People, Santa Fe 1985.
Patricia Morrisroe, Mapplethorpe. A Biography, London 1995.
Arthur Coleman Danto, Playing With the Edge: The Photographic Achievement of Robert Mapplethorpe, Berkeley and London 1996.
Susan Mc Ateer
University of Edinburgh
The University of Edinburgh is a research partner of ARTIST ROOMS.