Pete Sigal October 3, 10 min read Robert Mapplethorpe photographs in a spread from Interview magazine, March , in the Robert Mapplethorpe archive. All rights reserved A professor of history at Duke University and a theorist of sexuality and gender, scholar Pete Sigal recently visited the Getty Research Institute to study materials in the Robert Mapplethorpe archive. We invited him to share his discoveries with our readers. When I entered the Getty Research Institute to examine the Robert Mapplethorpe archive, I expected to find salacious photographs and perhaps some steamy correspondence. I wanted to write about the ways in which the photographer related to his black models, and in particular to think about how he moved from the s New York gay sadomasochistic scene to the portrayal of the black male body as a fetish.
Some see him as famous, some as notorious because of what can be perceived as obscene imagery, but the truth is, Mapplethrope was the conceiver of unique poetics, making the hidden and the tabooed accessible to the masses. At the peak of his career, he was beaten by AIDS, while his life evolution can be tracked through subtle hints of his self portrait photography. The one above was made in Featured is one of his black male nude torsos, done six years prior to his exhibition Black Males and the subsequent edition called The Black Book. This torso epitomizes all the primary traits of his style — clear, unburdened composition, sculptural quality of human body in focus, smooth, shiny texture. The Black BookFirst published in , The Black Book presents 96 formally stringent and highly erotic nudes, all of them photographs of black men, either as full figures, or staged as details, as fragments of their bodies. Lisa Lyon, Fascinated with her strong and classically beautiful body, Mapplethorpe made more nudes of Lisa Lyon, the upper depicting all the muscular strength she possesses, while hinting the kink in black straps wrapped around her.