Robert Mapplethorpe stated that he sought ‘perfection in form’ in all his subjects, from nudes and portraits to flowers and architecture. This perfection is exemplified by his celebrated studies of the human figure; sitters included black models, dancers and body-builders, all with muscular and well-defined bodies. These powerful bodies are reminiscent of classical Greek sculpture and governed by rules of symmetry and geometry.
In 1980 Robert Mapplethorpe met Lisa Lyon, the first World Women’s Body Building Champion. They would collaborate several times over the next few years creating various portraits and figure studies including both full and fragmented body images. This series of collaborations, which saw Lyon take on multiple guises and ‘types’ of women, would result in the book Lady: Lisa Lyon 1983.
During the same period as his collaboration with Lisa Lyon, Mapplethorpe was also photographing the male figure. Mapplethorpe’s male figures were often athletic black men because, as his biographer Patricia Morrisroe would state, ‘he could extract a greater richness from the colour of their skin’. He would produce a book exclusively of photographs of black men, Black Book 1986. The figure studies included images of fragmented bodies such as a torso, an extended arm, buttocks and thighs. Mapplethorpe once stated ‘I zero in on the body part that I consider the most perfect part in that particular model’.
Mapplethorpe’s black sitters included the athlete and model Ken Moody and the dancer Derrick Cross – they would be photographed by him multiple times. In the work Derrick Cross 1983 the body’s core fills the frame. The arch of the body suggests movement while the draped fabric around the waist enhances the sense of performance and sculpture. The motion of the torso embellishes the muscle definition, emphasising the physicality and sense of strength.
Mapplethorpe’s late flower studies can be disconcertingly ambiguous: at once, an oblique reference to sexuality and sexual organs yet, at the same time, sensitive paeans to a world of fragile beauty.
Writing in the introduction to Lady: Lisa Lyon, the British writer Bruce Chatwin stated that Mapplethorpe’s ‘eye for a body was that of a classical sculptor in search of an ideal’. Mapplethorpe’s photographs of Lyon explore the parameters and limitations of gender; she is fetishised not for her sex but for her strength and physical beauty. Mapplethorpe once said that ‘photography was a great way to make a sculpture’. What do you think he meant by this?
Sculpture is three-dimensional art associated with carving, modelling, casting or constructing. Mapplethorpe is quoted as saying that ‘Photography is a great way to make sculpture’. Consider ways that you could create your own two-dimensional sculpture. Consider the materials you could use within the limitations of the two-dimensional.
Francesca Woodman also photographed and the subjects identity is sometimes unclear. Find out more about Francesca Woodman.