When photography is about love, the picture usually crops up in someone’s wallet, or perhaps on a desk top, but rarely on a museum’s walls. Yet love is at the core of the two most resonant photography exhibitions of the year—Minor White’s and Robert Mapplethorpe’s. White lived much longer than Mapplethorpe, and White’s work has been in the public eye for almost half a century, yet only now, with this new exhibition, can we see so many of the photographs that show his heart on their sleeves. While the Mapplethorpe exhibition, “The Perfect Moment,” has caused enormous debate, “Minor White: The Eye That Shapes” has barely been noticed. The Mapplethorpe show carries a warning that it contains strong material, a reference to the sexual explicitness that has made Mapplethorpe’s photography so controversial. The White exhibition should warn visitors that they might be bored. But there’s something instructive to be found in it anyway.
In one respect, “The Eye That Shapes” is no diﬀerent from other projects dedicated to White’s work: it’s lled with eye-glazers. White—who has been acclaimed as one of America’s most important photographers, and who was undoubtedly an inuential teacher, writer, and editor—started out as a botany major, and his beginnings show. In picture after picture, he kept zooming in on nature, all too often arriving at results as scintillating as laboratory slides. These photographs have the same anesthetized and out-of-context quality as cross-sections. (A few of them look like stills of uids in lit-up lava lamps when the goop is swirling.) In White’s other work, too, context is often ruptured to the point where it’s hard to know what you’re looking at, and the mystication seems suspiciously like an easy way of announcing “Art.”
Most people associate White’s photography with austerity. Typical White nature scenes look as squeaky clean as Ansel Adams’ landscapes. You don’t see empty Tab cans on any rocks he photographed. Snow always looks clean and crisp, not grimy and slushy. He did photograph graﬃti, but on walls, not knifed into trees. The very asceticism of so many of his well-known photographs contrasts starkly with the standard definition of modern living: that we are ruled by fashion, article, instant gratification—the vanities. In the context of that embarrassing description of our collective personality, White’s photographs of stones and pebbles on unpolluted beaches, of whiter-than-white icicles could provide an oasis for the eyes. They do the trick for some. But White’s work never released any magic for me. It’s hard to care about images if there’s nothing in them to suggest that their maker saw deeper or more than others have seen: we don’t need Minor White to help us appreciate the fact that snow crystals have patterns. However, White is a crucial figure when it comes to another kind of pattern—a pattern of response to the arts when they seem to threaten some societal notion of what’s proper. Because White’s photography has a long history of being received as perfectly respectable, it’s diﬃcult to imagine its being slammed as “dirty.” But in fact, as the current exhibition demonstrates, this respectability is the result of careful decisions that White made about his photographs to keep them from frightening the horses.
The spectacle we witnessed this summer surrounding Mapplethorpe’s photographs involved the very responses that White tried so hard to avoid—shock, disgust, hate. Despite a taste for the occult, White was a conventional man, who obeyed the conventions of his time, and one of them was that if you were unfortunate enough to love your own sex—which he did—you controlled that information, and certainly didn’t advertise it in your work. Almost from the start, White held back those pictures of his that gave too much away about his personal life. His solution to the split between what supposedly belongs in public and what supposedly belongs in private was to develop an alternate, acceptable pictorial language that he thought could express what he wanted to express in ways that wouldn’t oﬀend. Abstraction played a large part in his attempt to make images that “passed” but that also communicated, as did his use of sequences. This interest in abstraction and sequences went beyond the need to disguise imagery, but if ever there was a photographer who made pictures that need to be “read between the lines” it is White.
He wasn’t flush with alternatives. Here was a guy who in the forties and fifties began to try to make a name for himself in American photography. He wasn’t a Beat, he wasn’t a bohemian, he wasn’t rich, he wasn’t worldly. This wasn’t Paris in the twenties. This was a culture that was phobic about diﬀerences. It’s no coincidence that Edward Steichen’s 1955 show “The Family of Man” was such a crowd-pleaser. Steichen’s exhibition fit the mood of postwar America. It echoed the era’s obsession with the nuclear family. Its sentimental theme of the world’s disparate people as one big family was a sweet idea, but it swallowed up realities, trying to wish away the fact of cultural and economic diﬀerence by showing that everyone everywhere still laughed, cried, and had babies. Although White wasn’t included in Steichen’s blockbuster, he was by then a part of the inner family of the photography community. It hadn’t taken him very long to find his way in.
Right after he was discharged from the Army, in 1945, with a Bronze Star, White headed for New York, where he aimed straight for the top—the most important duo in photography—Beaumont Newhall, the curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, and his wife, Nancy, a major force in the eld in her own right. They were receptive; at once, White got a job at the museum, making copy prints of works in its collection, and through the Newhalls he met many of the figures in photography who were, or would become, the powers in the medium, among them Ansel Adams, Edward Steichen, and Edward Weston, whose gorgeous landscapes and nudes had an everlasting influence on White.
On his own, White met Alfred Stieglitz. The self-taught White had come to New York to learn more, and what better person to seek out than the man who had been claiming, for half a century, to have the answers to what photography was all about? If there was one area in which White had no conflict, it was his attraction to people with answers. The way White remembered it, much of the conversation during their first meeting—in Stieglitz’s legendary gallery—sounds like your usual modern-art chat:
Sitting on the radiator in the little back room of An American Place six months after World War II, we talked about how to make photographs, spoke about the Equivalent. Stieglitz said something or other about photography that makes visible the invisible, and something else about true things being able to talk to each other. His talk itself was a kind of equivalent; that is, his words were not related to the sense he was making.
Their professional talk, as professional talk often does, turned personal. White’s version of the story ends with Stieglitz asking a question and also giving an answer: “Have you ever been in love? . . .Then you can photograph.” That dot dot dot we have to fill in for ourselves.
This version of White’s version of his talk with Stieglitz comes from “A Living Remembrance”—the homage to White that made up a 1984 issue of Aperture. In another account of that conversation, White says yes, he has been in love, but he doesn’t volunteer any details. It’s easy to imagine him protecting himself by not revealing with whom. The walls around the subject of homosexuality were so fortresslike that most people would have hidden behind them in order not to be branded, let alone not to make a bad career move—even in the company of a bohemian like Stieglitz, whose own life wasn’t exactly a shining example of commitment to hearth and home. With all Stieglitz’s talk about Equivalents, White probably decided to let it be assumed that his experience was equivalent to Stieglitz’s.
It is obvious why White often referred to that encounter with Stieglitz as crucial to his life. To be told that an emotion that has caused so much guilt—the guilt permeates White’s writing—is at the heart of one’s ability to create is not a tip likely to be forgotten. On top of that, Stieglitz oﬀered White a systematic approach to photography. As is clear from all the other systems White eventually followed—Zen, the teachings of Gurdjieﬀ, Catholicism, Ansel Adams’ zone system, the I Ching, and astrology, to name his major guideposts—he was system happy. Even before the two men met, Stieglitz’s series of symbolic photographs, called Equivalents, had impressed White, and, indeed, was one of the reasons he had sought out the older photographer. The concept behind these Equivalents—that metaphor, since it goes further than the literal, is the most creative form of expression—wasn’t just aesthetically useful to White; it was a godsend in terms of White’s problems with subject matter. It was the notion of Equivalents that gave him a way to photograph his various diﬃcult subjects. For beyond the forbidden one, there was the impossible one—faith. Many painters have taken on the spiritual as a theme, but White is one of the few photographers to have tried to make prints of the ineﬀable. He once explained that if he kept going he would “give proof that this instrument can carry out the work of God.” Here, too, Stieglitz’s Equivalents were a model. To some, they were evidence of the Almighty—an assessment that Stieglitz didn’t contradict. “I’m most curious to see what the ‘Clouds’ will do to you . . .” he wrote to Hart Crane. “Several people feel I have photographed God. Maybe.”
The year after White met Stieglitz, something happened that must have conrmed White’s fear of being direct in his imagery. An exhibition of his work was cancelled on grounds of taste. He had shot a sequence titled “Amputations,” to be shown at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, in San Francisco. According to Peter Bunnell, who curated “The Eye That Shapes” and wrote the accompanying book—which I have relied on for most of my biographical information about the photographer—there were two problems that White had to confront. A text he had written to go along with the pictures was attacked for being too long and of poor quality. And, more significant, White’s focus on the human cost of war seems to have provoked the accusation that “Amputations” was unpatriotic. Some of the images from the sequence are included in “The Eye That Shapes.” One of them, “Double Navel,” a detail of a rock that has the same contours as a human torso, comes in close on the gashes, holes, and scoria of a rock’s surface, and the analogy White was making with the wounds of war is hard to miss. The sequence also oﬀers examples of the way White exploited the talent of trees for symbolizing tortuousness. Still, from the perspective of today it is almost unbelievable that anyone could have confused White’s poetic attempt to get at the horrors of war with a lack of patriotism. No wonder honesty about other subjects, ones that were even more explosive, seemed like career suicide to so many people then.
“The Eye That Shapes” is the result of a career spent avoiding calling a spade a spade, and the show includes a narrative photograph that suggests the spade that was taboo. In this photograph, as usual, White told his story with codes, and so some detective work is necessary. (Bunnell is the Sherlock Holmes who uncovered the clues in it.) Made in 1950, and titled “Market Street, San Francisco,” this picture features a sailor and a woman in semi-embrace at the corner of a busy street. One of her arms reaches behind them, her fingers pointing like arrows to a traﬃc light that spells out “STOP.” Just beyond, you can make out the word “Camera” above a store.
Camera Stop? You don’t have to stretch metaphor very far to get what’s being illustrated: the social and pictorial rules about sex that White was confronting. In “Market Street,” White used an acceptable couple—a man and a woman—to suggest the bind he was in. The bind itself appears in public for the rst time in “The Eye That Shapes.” Displayed next to this very forties image of a sailor and his girl is “Ernest Stones and Robert Bright” (1949). In this simple photograph, it is two young men who are in semi-embrace. They’re indoors, not out on the street, where they might be seen by others, but they’re nevertheless very presentable—both of them in white shirts and ties, both with regular-Joe crewcuts. There’s nothing else in the picture, just the two men. There’s no subtext of signs; nothing’s interfering with their intimacy. Because of what we’re used to seeing, or not seeing, this calm portrait of men loving each other with all their buttons buttoned is a jolt—actually a double jolt, because it’s by White, whose work has always seemed so empty of human interaction.
“The Eye That Shapes” is not the first time White’s homosexuality has been acknowledged, but it is the first opportunity we’ve had to see the photographs on exhibit that once seemed so much like dynamite they were kept out of public sight. These images are Bunnell’s big scoop, and they are very welcome for the way they humanize White. There has always been something unconvincing about his work’s opacity; no one seems at home behind many of the pictures. By unveiling previously unexhibited work, Bunnell gives us the raw material that lay beneath some of the shapes that caught White’s eye. Bunnell’s show and book demonstrate how White recast imagery so that it could go safely out into the world.
Among the photographs that White shelved are male nudes. A few of these images could have been made by George Platt Lynes, given their theatrical use of light and shadow to highlight men’s bodies in arty, cheesecake poses. And then there are models who could slip right into Calvin Klein’s ad campaign for underwear, except that White’s models are lower on beefcake and no one is wearing those come-and-get-it briefs. But “The Eye That Shapes” also includes nudes that are personal. White made these in the late forties, and they belong to a sequence titled “The Temptation of Saint Anthony Is Mirrors.” The body of his model, Tom Murphy, has a grace that satisfied White’s ambition to make sensitive pictures. Even in shots where White added touches of the kind a bad art director brings to commercial photography—such as a rose placed near Murphy’s penis, an arrangement with all the subtlety of a boulder—this sequence has a fleshy reality, and two of the shots are actually unpretentious. When White resisted the frills—when there is no self-conscious lighting, no coy hiding of (or decorating) the genitals—what a diﬀerence! These photographs give us a chance to see what White was capable of without all the shticky overlay.
When I first saw the exhibition at the Modern last spring, this diﬀerent side of White made it seem as though someone else’s pictures had been shoehorned into his. Yet, despite the fact that the unknown photographs looked like aliens, the installation of the exhibition made it clear that they were very much a planned part of the event. Every decision about how to hang them appeared to be the result of careful, serious thought—too much thought. The sequence of images on the walls almost exactly paralleled the sequencing in the accompanying book—an unusual correspondence, since even though most curators start out with a plan, they add, drop, and move works around until all the art seems comfortable in the allotted space. Here there was no sense of spontaneity. I wonder how much of this rigidity was due to the fact that White’s image was being changed—and with a kind of photography rare at the Modern, whose walls, like those of most art institutions, have been basically genital-free. That same art decorum which inhibited White has kept most figurative art from getting too detailed or graphic (and, of course, the ruling modern style, abstraction, solved the problem of the need for a g leaf ). In addition, at the Modern, as at almost all other museums, homosexuality has not been a deliberate theme, however understated. Peter Bunnell was breaking ground, and his desire to serve White’s work yet preserve his
reputation surely dictated some of his moves.
The White show will travel around the country for almost the next two years. Its contents will not vary much from stop to stop, and the plan is to install it as closely as possible to the way it was displayed at the Modern (and the way the photographs are ordered in the book). It’s not that Bunnell pulls punches when it comes to White’s unknown work: he sets up the show by clumping together, near the beginning, enough nudes to cue visitors that they are going to see a White they’ve never seen before. And Bunnell’s text is very open about White’s homosexuality. The problem is more a matter of too much editorializing. In his eﬀort to reveal correspondences among certain photographs, Bunnell separates others that would have been better kept together. Splitting apart the “Temptation of Saint Anthony Is Mirrors” photographs is particularly odd, since they were made as a sequence. The way Bunnell spots these pictures around, they are as unnerving as a flasher popping out from behind a tree. Inserted between two abstract photographs that look like peeling walls, an image of the unpeeled Murphy is startling; when it’s
considered with the other pictures in the sequence the surprise dulls. Bunnell’s arrangement reflects the split that divided White’s work into public and private imagery, but as a result the “Saint Anthony” pictures haven’t really surfaced. Bunnell’s half-showing them is tantamount to asking you to come into the closet with them rather than bringing them out.
A side eﬀect of this peekaboo installation is the intensification of an already charged atmosphere. Bunnell clearly wants us to catch every sexual metaphor. His juxtapositions spell out (and perhaps induce) the resemblances between, say, Murphy’s member and an icicle. But even without this curatorial help, one can grasp how White developed his own system of Equivalents. He wasn’t subtle. He treated rocks as stand-ins for people, producing some images that give new meaning to the term “nature lovers.” Using geology as a substitute for anatomy, White employed closeups and cropping to express what he couldn’t show directly. Once you get the point that a stone’s cracks and orifices are references to the entrances and exits that come with a body, no stone remains unturned into a potential double meaning.
Rarely did White’s use of Equivalents avoid gimmickry. Whether the allusion is to the body or to the Bible, metaphor failed to enrich his photography. His Biblical references are utterly unconvincing. A photograph called “Burning Bush,” made the year he met Stieglitz, is typical of White in its apocalyptic mood and its flashy use of light and shadow. In this picture, a starburst of light brightens up a scraggly tree and a couple of bushes. It has the look of a special eﬀect in a low-budget movie.
White’s pursuit of the spiritual took him in more esoteric directions as well. For example, he titled a photograph after the most famous Zen koan, “The sound of one hand clapping.” The subject, an Oriental-looking bowl, is as good an answer as any for a riddle that’s not supposed to have an answer, but it really doesn’t do much to encourage a Zen attitude. Zen is about attention, and this dull-gray object against a darker-gray background doesn’t invite attention for long. A seascape titled “Shore Acres, Oregon” does draw attention, but not for the reason White intended. Above the Sturm und Drang of crashing waves, a lone bird picturesquely draws the eyes skyward; a streak of pure-white light divides the heavens from the ruckus of the sea. The whole shebang is clearly meant to inspire awe, but the bird is so small and is photographed at such an ambiguous angle that initially it’s hard to tell whether it’s a gull or only a splotch of grime on the print.
There’s very little warmth or humor in the bulk of White’s work. What there is mostly is pointing. The exhibition includes a small selection of color photographs. The color injects a little oomph into the images, but it also underlines White’s superficial grasp of design. He was hooked on colors that went together or matched: a red faucet handle, say, must have caught his eye because it was on a barrel with a red patch. His propensity for interior-decorating an image led him to take photographs of landscapes that look arranged, rather than found by his camera. His street pictures have some life—he was obviously trying to connect with city energy—but he stiﬀened the action instead of snapping it, the way a Bill Klein or a Garry Winogrand did. In their photographs, all the diﬀerent elements cook together; in White’s, the potential hubbub of a street picture has been strained out, so that you can’t miss what he wants you to focus on. He spoon-feeds the viewer. He makes all the discoveries, and the viewer’s job is to respond to what he found, rather than to join him in a process of discovery. Whether the photographs are pointing to nature, pointing to colors, pointing to sex, pointing to God, or pointing to art, they’re didactic. One way to avoid pedagogy is to be human, to show doubt by acknowledging that life brings more questions than answers. But to do that requires an honest look at oneself—exactly what White felt he couldn’t aﬀord in his public pictures. This fear of exposure is painfully clear in the letters of his that are reprinted in Bunnell’s book.
What is striking in these letters is the mysterious absence of any mention of love or romance—that whole department. These letters were written to the people he felt closest to, and they’re full of his ideas about work, photography, and spiritual matters. Yet there’s only one person, Isabel Kane Bradley, in whom he condes any emotions or experiences having to do with his homosexuality. For more about White’s personal life, one has to go to his poems and to his private journal, which carries the name “Memorable Fancies.” (Some of this material is included in the book.) In “Memorable Fancies,” White attempted to get to the bottom of what made him tick, of what made him ashamed: his entries reveal that he was trying to understand the relationship between his personality and the stigma of homosexuality. A comment he wrote on March 10, 1960, reads, “I have often said that for anyone who likes self pity—homosexuality is a grand source . . . I recall from [my work in] Sequence 13 the statement ‘By a law of yourself you are condemned to live in fear of those that will love you.’ What LAW? What and why Law?”
Too bad White didn’t harness this ability to dig below the surface when he was actually making photographs. At “The Eye That Shapes” you can see the eﬀect of imposed rules and formulas on an artist’s work. You can see how silly a subject can get if it can’t be expressed directly. You can watch what happens as life is edited out. And in the book you can read how White advised others to stick to propriety. A letter written in 1962 to an unidentified photographer who had sent his sexually revelatory work to White indicates just how slavish he was to a recipe of what should and shouldn’t go into art. “These prints outline for me a rather tragic story of a man’s life,” White wrote. “Your photographs are still mirrors of yourself. In other words your images are raw, the emotions naked. To present these to others they need appropriate clothes. These are private images not public ones.”
White recognized that the other photographer had created images that were “very real” and very aﬀecting, yet White was telling him to cover up the elements that conveyed such meaning. White’s insistence that the photographer dress up his story to enable it to pass as a reection of Mankind was presented in the name of the standard notion that art should be universalized—the concept that makes White’s own photography so hollow. Despite all his talk of mirrors, he didn’t seem to understand that there can be no such thing as common experience if there are no specific selves to reflect it.
Looking at much of White’s photography is like listening to a sermon from someone who is unable to communicate to you because he doesn’t acknowledge what life is really like. White’s diaries and his letters to Bradley suggest that he knew about the struggle to have faith, to nd intimacy, to accept himself, and to be accepted by others, but you cannot tell it from the bulk of his work. He squeezed conict from his art, leaving it mechanical. Bunnell’s substructure in “The Eye That Shapes” reinforces the sermonizing quality that so many of White’s pictures have. Pompous titles introduced each section at the Modern —“Possession,” “Observation,” and “Revelation”—and the nal portion of the show gave us a dose of White’s preachiest photographs of crosses, cross-forms, and beams of light.
White’s isn’t the only faith on view in “The Eye That Shapes.” Bunnell’s faith in White is almost palpable in this carefully plotted production. I wasn’t at the lecture Bunnell gave at the Modern in conjunction with the opening of the show, but I heard a tape of it later. In it you can hear his emotion and his devotion to White. His intention is obviously to provide such a wide overview of White’s biography and the development of his pictorial vocabulary that the viewer can come away with an understanding of the man and a method of reading White’s codes and substitutional devices. He succeeds—and, as a result,
viewers can understand more easily what went wrong.
White is not unusual in having two bodies of work—the pictures he showed to the world and those he didn’t. But although the hidden pictures have been referred to as private imagery, they were actually treated as secret imagery—and there’s a big diﬀerence between privacy and secrecy. Privacy is a choice; it’s about living your life the way you want to. Secrecy is usually a form of protection, but the safety it aﬀords has the same relationship to freedom as being locked in an isolation chamber. Many of White’s photographs show what it’s like to be inside that room. They’re like messages sent by someone trapped, who has to disguise or code what is being transmitted so that it gets through; once you break White’s codes, you simply apply them where appropriate. The rest of the time you’re seeing standard pictures within standardized genres, be they religion, landscape, architecture, or abstraction. Often the results are perfectly fine, but “fine” doesn’t have much to do with being moved or captured by pictures.
It can’t be assumed that if White had been able to express himself more openly he would have been a more imaginative photographer. Even with those early nudes, some preconceived notion of artistic presentation—of lighting or pose or prop—tends to drain the images of life. But those are the photographs of a young artist looking for a style, a way to give his pictures his own stamp; their self-consciousness is typical of a beginner’s work. Who knows what he could have done if he hadn’t been so deeply involved with developing covert and acceptable ways to communicate his experience?
There are early pictures by White—especially the intimate ones of people—that have a real pictorial “voice.” “Ernest Stones and Robert Bright” is a gem, made all the more precious because you know that these two men couldn’t show their feelings for each other out in the world. And the “Saint Anthony Is Mirrors” sequence is rich enough to hint at the possibility that if White had directly approached what he was struggling with in his life he might have produced vital work. These photographs expose the source of White’s conflict between his religious beliefs and his desires. You can’t unravel the two subjects in these images; they are knotted together here the way they were in White’s mind. It is the tension one feels between them that gives the photographs force. When there is no figure in his spiritual work, the pictures lose passion and become hokey and stripped flat; the voice gets lost. The photograph that sums it all up is a self-portrait he made in 1957. It’s completely abstract, a white surface with black streaks. You can’t have a more blatant image than this of a missing person—or an emptier use of abstraction.
White wasn’t the kind of artist who did great work either despite or because of taboos. We like to remember those individuals who broke through the social and moral codes of their day, or who found ingenious ways around them. However, there aren’t many with Genet’s sense of nothing to lose, or with Proust’s scope. What about those who are crippled, rather than inspired, by repression? Isn’t it likely that White’s defensive reexes put so many brakes on his imagination that his picture-making froze?
Today, the images that White had to keep locked up cause no outrage. When his exhibition was at the Museum of Modern Art last spring, it drew some coverage but not much excitement. Although it will be seen in many distinguished institutions, it will not go to Washington. The show was packed in crates all summer, because it wasn’t scheduled for an appearance until September, when it opened at the Oregon Art Institute, in Portland. When the Corcoran Gallery, in Washington, cancelled Robert Mapplethorpe’s show, it filled the space with a show that had been scheduled for the fall, but actually White would have been a cleverer solution. In the White exhibition the Corcoran would have got the same basic subjects that are represented in the Mapplethorpe show—nature, portraits, and male nudes—plus some extras, such as landscapes and street pictures. It would not have received any photographs comparable in shock value to Mapplethorpe’s sex pictures, yet it would still have had homosexuality as a theme, so no one could have accused it of being homophobic. There are other touchy issues that the Corcoran could have avoided by using White as Mapplethorpe’s understudy, such as who’s footing the bill. Although government money helps keep the doors of almost every art institution in America open, the White show itself comes courtesy of Merrill Lynch & Company. Backed by big business, the White package can’t be accused of using taxpayers’ money to support monkey business.
White’s career is the well-behaved precursor of Mapplethorpe’s. White is not so loaded, because he fits a stereotype that many people are comfortable with—the homosexual artist who feels rotten about his sexuality and agrees not to thrust it in people’s faces. White did what Mapplethorpe wouldn’t do: he censored himself. Mapplethorpe left the censoring to others, and the Corcoran obliged. It would have none of Mapplethorpe’s show rather than some of it, the Corcoran announced, explaining that it did not want to have to censor parts of it. But no one had asked it to. It claimed that it wanted to keep the heat oﬀ the National Endowment for the Arts for giving a grant to the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Contemporary Art, the institution that originated “The Perfect Moment.” With help like that, the N.E.A. doesn’t need enemies—nor do any of the institutions that have shown Mapplethorpe’s work and could be tagged as irresponsible because of the Corcoran’s action.
Just like White, Mapplethorpe was ambitious, but he was not a follower of systems. He worked with what he saw around him and took cues from his own responses. You could write his biography on the basis of his photographs, without needing any secondary material, so many of the people he was involved with are right there in the pictures. And you can follow Mapplethorpe’s sexual history through his work. There are early cutouts from pornography magazines. Then there are the portraits of Patti Smith, the S & M pictures, Sam Wagstaﬀ, the men who followed—the story of his life. Like White, Mapplethorpe, a Catholic, often made work that included the iconography of the Cross. Unlike White, Mapplethorpe leaped on the sex taboo in art as though it were the last frontier to explore. Instead of circling around homosexuality, Mapplethorpe made it an unavoidable subject for anyone looking at or talking about his pictures. Instead of being afraid that homosexuality would ruin his career, Mapplethorpe used it to forward his reputation. Instead of photographing rocks to suggest sex, Mapplethorpe made pictures of men having sex. But that does not mean that Mapplethorpe wasn’t initially as freaked out as the next man about being a homosexual. He, too, had to deal with the question “What am I?” Much of the time, he used his work to try to answer that question. His self-portraits are an inventory of identities: himself as a woman, as a gangster, as a devilish imp, as a gentleman, as a toughie, as nothing special.
He was a photographer who took advantage of all the taboos and mysteries surrounding sex and homosexuality. They were his keys to doing something that would be noticed. Of course, the subject matter of his photographs wasn’t new; what was diﬀerent was that he was presenting explicit images that he wanted to show aboveground, not underground. The content of his most controversial work has an informational usefulness, too. These pictures provide views of sexual activities that are a puzzle to many people. He makes up for the sex education most of us didn’t get. Because he broke through the usual secrecy that surrounds homosexuality, homosexuality became the frame through which his photographs are seen. But many of his pictures—including many that are sexual—have nothing in them that makes them inherently about homosexuality. A man with his penis hanging out of his y—which is what we see in Mapplethorpe’s wryest image of all—is a joke on the way everything that has to do with sex is supposed to be zipped up. Many of his “naughty” photographs are like this one, in which Mapplethorpe was having fun shocking. Others are displays of his virtuosity with form. What better way to get people to look at your ability to compose photographs that are technically and formally sophisticated than to show oﬀ with a shape—a penis, a bottom, a nipple, a belly button—that you know has box-oﬃce draw? So many photographers who care about composition forget about our boredom, or maybe don’t respect it; they give us formally clever pictures, and we yawn. Mapplethorpe wanted to grab our attention, and he did, with that which had grabbed his own attention.
On the subject of sex, it’s as though Mapplethorpe had picked up a shovel, not a camera, and dug up what was buried. His most infamous imagery—the all-male S & M pictures—has angered many, including homosexuals who believe that these dark scenarios weaken the argument that homosexuality is as healthy as heterosexuality (and who remind us that sadism and masochism are not unknown in the heterosexual world). But Mapplethorpe wasn’t following any party line; he wasn’t into messages. Nor was he a moralizer. And he clearly wasn’t trying to be ingratiating. He took the photographs because he and the men who engaged in these blendings of punishment and pleasure had seen and experienced something they felt should be made visible. These photographs are diﬀerent from other works that have S & M as a subject, many of which glamorize what goes on, or titillate. Mapplethorpe’s S & M imagery is unvarnished. It’s the real thing—so real that some people call it dangerous and outrageous material, not art. The pictures are inarguably upsetting; but upsetting is no reason for banishment. The shouts of “Scandal!” are aimed in the wrong direction. If there’s a crime, it is that the individuals in his pictures are driven to see themselves as people who need to be punished in the context of sex, or to have so much anger about sex that they have to thrash others. When these images first appeared, ten years ago, there were those who couldn’t believe what they were seeing. And then, as the years went on, Mapplethorpe’s portraits, owers, and nudes took front stage, and the S & M pictures were integrated into the history of his work—always there as a kind of invisible inuence on the way people read his other imagery.
Although Mapplethorpe made very few S & M images, they would have to be included in any serious retrospective of his photography, as would examples of his non-S & M sexual imagery. Of all his subjects, sex is the one that most clearly reveals his intuition and his cleverness. In fact, only a small proportion of his work is on this topic, but this is where his contribution to photography stands out. His boldness, his cropping, and his frequent wit make other people’s photographs of similar subject matter seem diluted or somehow oﬀ-base. The rest of Mapplethorpe’s photography is not all so original. His stylization can appear forced. And even among the controversial photographs there are aﬀected examples—such as “Joe” (1978), a man in head-to-toe rubber—that are just silly; the image is all outt with nowhere to go. Mapplethorpe did best with simplicity. He was street smart, and when he used his canniness he hit his target. No other photographer has shown a black head and a white head up against each other with more eﬀect: Mapplethorpe’s image is tight with both tension and harmony. No other photographer has given us a kiss between two men which has made the word “queer” seem so obsolete. No one else has tapped the drama of closed eyelids so knowingly.
Mapplethorpe’s owers can have a riveting beauty that derives from a sense of their short life. Some are at such a peak you want to smell them. A lot of painters and photographers have worked with owers, and often these pictures are said to be sexual. Mapplethorpe’s owers can certainly be erotic, as Georgia
O’Keeﬀe’s can, but that’s due to the nature of flowers. Mapplethorpe certainly didn’t need to use owers as vehicles of sexual allusion, because he worked with sex directly. Besides, when his flower photographs are at their best it is because he saw some quality—prickliness, say, or purity—that he had to catch before it passed. But Mapplethorpe also treated flowers cursorily or used them as a prop. In those instances, his owers are forgettable. His last flowers are not forgettable. It is as though all the life and color that were being drained from him were being sucked into the petals, the stems, and even the backgrounds that he used.
As for his portraits, some of them hit and some miss. It’s not that any of them are ops—they’re all elegant—but the ones that are less imbued with his personal interest can be like head shots oﬀ the eight-by-ten-glossies rack. Not the stark portrait of Doris Saatchi, all enigmatic and oaty, with the strict contrasts between white and black which are his signature. Mapplethorpe’s portrait of de Kooning is strong also; in fact, it is wrenching. The begging in de Kooning’s eyes turns the image into the opposite of a commemoration of greatness. The photograph is a portrait of dependency and loneliness, and it makes de Kooning’s overalls seem more like a kid’s bib than like a painter’s dress. De Kooning obviously touched Mapplethorpe. When Mapplethorpe wasn’t moved or interested in a person, his portraits became merely workmanlike, a way to make a buck, too stock Steichen. His nudes also vary in quality. Like White, he could be derivative of Weston, but he extended what Weston did, creating some nudes that have no counterpart in their sense of physical intimacy and their luscious depiction of the texture of skin. When Mapplethorpe let himself be tempted by too broad a theatricality, the pictures get gift-boxy. He was strongest when he exerted his minimal aesthetic, and when he was at his most provocative.
“The Perfect Moment,” which was curated by Janet Kardon, oﬀers a sensible cross-section of Mapplethorpe’s work. The images that are said to have caused the blowup in Washington belong to three portfolios of prints cleverly titled “X,” “Y,” and “Z.” As the exhibition travels, the portfolios (which also include flowers, portraits, and texts) are always installed in a Mapplethorpe-designed slanting cabinet at counter height. They are avoidable; by just looking at what’s on the walls, one could go through the show without seeing them. But to miss this tougher aspect of his work is to miss what gives Robert Mapplethorpe his place in photographic history.
That place is becoming clearer and clearer after a summer and a fall in which Robert Mapplethorpe, the Corcoran, and its director, Christina Orr-Cahall, had almost daily attention in the papers. There’s irony in Mapplethorpe’s becoming such a political cause célèbre. He may have been political in terms of whom to talk to at a dinner party, but he didn’t give a hoot about real politics. Still, real politics found him when his work was about to appear in the capital. The reason he’s controversial now is that he touched on all those territorial questions about the body which are once again such a vivid part of American politics. But whereas it’s life—the life of the fetus—that is at the core of the abortion debate, it’s the spectre of death that is hanging over Mapplethorpe’s pictures. Mapplethorpe didn’t disappear into a hole when he became ill and his illness was diagnosed as AIDS. He didn’t blame himself; he was a logical man. He didn’t consider his condition God’s punishment. He understood it for what it was—a virus, not a sign that he had sinned. He had no shame about having AIDS. This, in combination with his reputation as a homosexual who photographed homosexuals, made him a magnet for the media. Some articles even benefitted from the panache of an accompanying Mapplethorpe self-portrait, done after his AIDS started showing. He took several such pictures of himself. In one that has now become famous, because it has been reproduced so often, he’s holding a cane that has a skull knob and looking us straight in the eye. These self-portraits enabled everybody to witness him getting thinner, the sockets of his eyes getting more dramatic, his skin changing, his exhaustion visible. In addition, paparazzi constantly snapped him when he went out; they had a market for pictures of Robert Mapplethorpe with AIDS.
The brew of Mapplethorpe’s artistic history, his personal openness, and then his openness about his medical condition has made him an icon of the age of AIDS—a rival to Rock Hudson as the most famous person to have had the disease. The press coverage of the Corcoran’s cancellation made it clear just how glued together Mapplethorpe and AIDS have become. Practically every time his name was mentioned, AIDS was mentioned too, as his I.D. This isn’t surprising. Reporters so often have to hold back on the word “AIDS” when people with AIDS have died that it seems writers can’t string together the words “Robert Mapplethorpe, the photographer, who died of AIDS” often enough. There are those who use his AIDS in obviously manipulative ways. For example, in the public debates that have gone on—and on—about the Corcoran’s cancellation, the information that Mapplethorpe died of AIDS is also always available, perhaps more often than his correct name. He’s been referred to as Mapplewood, Mappleton, and Mapplesex, these “slips” usually coming from politicians excoriating his photography as part of their platform of decency and taxpayers’ rights. (One supposes that their inability to retain the correct name of the man who made the so-called dirty pictures is a symbol of their righteousness.)
In fact, AIDS has a lot to do with what has happened lately with Mapplethorpe’s work. In 1988, when it became widely known that he had AIDS, the Mapplethorpe business boomed; there was a rush to buy prints he had personally overseen and signed, and there was a urry of retrospectives. After he died, the boom intensiFIed, but we also got to see how his having had AIDS could be used to fuel an assault against his photography. The outcome of the Corcoran’s cancellation of Mapplethorpe’s show has been a debate in which his photographs have been treated by some as though they were a virus that curators have to be careful about exposing the public to. The stigma that his death carries has made his image and his work much more vulnerable to misrepresentation and projection. Now the physical sickness that the man endured is being used to conrm ideas that the work itself is sick.
The woman who brought Mapplethorpe back from the dead, Christina Orr-Cahall, is not immune to the criticism that she, too, approached Mapplethorpe’s work as if it were contaminated. Who, other than someone very anxious, cancels a show so late in the schedule that the invitations have already been mailed out? Granted, there were rumblings and grumblings on the Hill. Granted, Orr-Cahall appears to have been uninformed about Mapplethorpe’s work—a rather unusual position, to say the least, for someone in the art profession. (Mapplethorpe’s been famous for a decade, and “The Perfect Moment” had already been in two museums.) Still, above and beyond Orr-Cahall’s faux or real ignorance about the content of the show, she simply didn’t give the pictures proper professional regard. Everything about her process before, during, and since the cancellation has had the aroma of panic, and, more serious, could suggest museological misconduct. For example, Orr-Cahall made the decision to cancel the show on the basis of photocopies of Mapplethorpe’s pictures, which, according to the Washington Post, she had
dispatched three scouts to Philadelphia to obtain. Apparently, it was on the basis of her descriptions of these photocopies that the Corcoran board confirmed her decision—at a thinly attended special meeting for which no agenda had been announced. (I rarely wish I were a fly, but to have been one on the wall on this occasion would be worth putting up with a lifetime of leftovers.) Whatever was said at this meeting, what resulted was a substitute show—and some important questions. For example: How could the Corcoran’s director have allowed her museum to respond to political rather than cultural imperatives? How could she have allowed an artist’s work to be rejected on the basis of photocopies, when so much of this photography’s message depends on the feeling and scale of the actual prints?
When it turned out that the Corcoran’s cancellation had alarmed many people in the arts, among them artists and dealers who said they would not participate in future exhibitions at that institution, the museum was forced to issue a statement of regret. But the tenor of its statement was rather sad proof that the institution’s leader really doesn’t understand what the problem is. It was hopelessly political in the bureaucratic sense—a transparent P.R. move—and it didn’t work: “By withdrawing from the Mapplethorpe exhibition, we, the board of trustees and the director, have inadvertently oﬀended many members of the arts community, which we deeply regret.” If only they weren’t so worried about oﬀending people, the higher-ups at the Corcoran would be able to see the issues with more clarity. It is nice that Orr-Cahall personally passed on the Corcoran’s regrets by calling, say, Donald Lipski and Annette Lemieux, two artists whom they were counting on for upcoming exhibits, but what about Mapplethorpe’s family, who have had to live through all the Mapplethorpe-bashing that resulted from the Corcoran’s implicit agreement that his photographs are something to fear? To this day, the Corcoran has not written to or called those responsible for the Mapplethorpe estate, which owns the majority of the pictures in the exhibition. Usually a prime lender is treated with kid gloves. Here it’s as though the Mapplethorpe estate were getting the rubber-glove treatment—avoidance. When the Corcoran pulled out, it did so through the press. When Orr-Cahall “apologized,” it wasn’t to anyone who had anything directly to do with Mapplethorpe or his work —it wasn’t to the people he chose to be the caretakers of his pictures after he was gone. Meanwhile, Jane Livingston, the curator who was responsible for bringing “The Perfect Moment” to the Corcoran, has resigned. The gallery has lost ten per cent of its membership. What a mess. But it has exorcised so much.
From the beginning, the latest drama over N.E.A. funding was reminiscent of one of Mapplethorpe’s sadomasochistic scenes. A few members of the House and a few senators were holding the whip, and the two institutions that received N.E.A. money to support Mapplethorpe’s show and that of the other artist, Andres Serrano, who has been accused of photographic evildoing were said to have committed crimes for which they must suﬀer. (Although Serrano’s picture, “Piss Christ,” is utterly innocuous, the sound of its title alone could distress people and be used as a tool by the same group who tried to shut down Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Over the last few months, when Serrano’s photograph has been labelled “blasphemous” his defenders have explained that the artist’s intention was to call attention to the vulgarization and the commercialization of sacred imagery, but this does not seem to have impressed any of those who feel the work belongs in an incinerator, whether or not they’ve seen any of it.)
While the punishment that had been suggested—no more money for five years—was voted down in the House, what was voted in isn’t much better. Now the Endowment has to notify Congress thirty days prior to the giving of any grant money to either place, the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem. In other words, these institutions are being treated like criminals on probation. They’re not on their knees, or in chains, or hanging, the way some of Mapplethorpe’s men are, but they, too, are victims of notions of sin that not everyone accepts. In addition, forty-five thousand dollars was chopped from the N.E.A.’s allotment—the amount of money given out for Mapplethorpe and Serrano. These two decisions alone are alarming, because they uphold the notion that the institutions involved have done something wrong.
This is not a climate in which politicians are careful about how they slander artists. About a picture in which a little girl has her dress hiked up and no underwear on, Senator Helms told a Times reporter, “I’m embarrassed to even talk to you about this. I’m embarrassed to talk to my wife.” Here, Helms was pushing yet another false image of Mapplethorpe—that he exploited children. I spoke to one of the subjects who has been cited as a victim of Mapplethorpe’s abuse—Jesse McBride. His mother and Mapplethorpe were close friends. In Mapplethorpe’s photograph, McBride is naked and he has leaped onto the back of a chair. “I must have been four or ve then,” he said (he’s eighteen now). “I remember jumping around and laughing. I’m not as free-minded now. In those days, I’d just take oﬀ my clothes and start jumping on the chair. It was fun—Robert snapping away, and my mom laughing. When I got older, up to when I was twelve, I was embarrassed by the picture. I turned it toward the wall when my friends came over. I didn’t want them to see my private parts. I didn’t mind the adults’ seeing me naked, but when you’re that age you’re easily embarrassed by friends. Now when I look at the photograph I think it’s a really beautiful picture. I think back to when I was so young and innocent. I look particularly angelic.” As Pat Steir, a painter, pointed out to me, this image echoes almost exactly a 1506 drawing of a young boy by Dürer, which he made as a study for his painting “Madonna with the Greenfinch.”
Still, some people accept as truth the fabrication that Mapplethorpe exploited or abused children. After the staﬀ of the Washington Project for the Arts stepped in and took over Mapplethorpe’s show in Washington, they received many letters. Congratulations were almost unanimous, but a few people wanted to go on record as being oﬀended. A man from Kansas wrote the following letter to the staﬀ: “I heard on the radio today that you have opened an ‘Art’ exhibit that depicts the exploitation of children. One that exposes male and children’s female genitalia. That’s disgusting! I also understand that this ‘artist’ is/was a homosextual [sic] and depicts other works with men in strange positions and environments. An exhibit of this sort would never be shown here in Kansas because we do not believe that our tax dollars should support such blatant, disgusting material. If Washington is supposed to lead the country in being an example, I’ll stay in Kansas. I intend to notify my Reps and Senators that this is appalling to us here in the plains. Shame on you!” Taxes, dollars: that’s the hook being used to get into the N.E.A.’s pocket. It has been said that taxpayers shouldn’t have to support work that is oﬀensive to community standards. But nobody yet has dened which taxpayers, or who or what is meant by “community.”
In fact, the community that wants to see Mapplethorpe’s work is enormous. Viewers come in numbers that make his shows blockbusters. The Whitney reported that his retrospective there in 1988 was one of the most highly attended events in its history. And the record crowds that have attended “The Perfect Moment” at each of its first four stops are not unusual for his work. After the Mapplethorpe show left Washington, the next venue was the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. Andrea Miller-Keller, its curator of contemporary art, told me that there has been some community distress over the notion that the museum is exhibiting the work of a man who exploited children, and the afternoon I was there, on opening day, demonstrators carrying anti-abortion signs were gathered outside the museum.
Nevertheless, the Mapplethorpe exhibition has had the most successful first week in the history of the Wadsworth. And Mapplethorpe’s catalogue and book sales indicate a readership that’s much broader than the usual art-book market. One assumes that all the people who are seeking out his work are taxpayers, too. Detractors are bound to argue that the huge audience that Mapplethorpe attracts is merely responding to his notoriety. Actually, ever since his pictures first appeared he has had devoted viewers. Nowadays it’s fair to assume that some people go to view his work because of the publicity, but it says something that they want to see it for themselves—that they aren’t scared of what will happen to them if they look at these supposedly contaminated images. And it says something, too, that there have been no more than three or four complaints from viewers at each of the American museums where Mapplethorpe’s most graphic imagery has been included. Even so, his photography is said to be inappropriate for public expenditure and public consumption.
Can we, the public, handle direct images of sex? That, not taxes, is the real question. (If we’re really going to be in control of our tax money, let each of us be given a checklist on the I.R.S. form each year showing all the items our taxes are to be spent on, so that we can indicate exactly how we want our money to be used. On the Stealth bomber? Aid to the Contras?) As for whether or not Mapplethorpe’s graphic imagery belongs in a public institution, perhaps the best answer is to describe what goes on when it’s shown. At the Wadsworth, in the gallery where the S & M pictures were on view, I saw a long line of people waiting to see what was in the cabinet. Around that display there was a hush, not a riot. The night the Mapplethorpe exhibition opened at the Washington Project was another good example of reality versus projection when it comes to the way people respond to Mapplethorpe’s work. It was an evening that was obviously at high pitch, because of all that had gone on about the exhibition in Washington. There was the busyness of reporters scribbling, taping, filming, and swarming which one finds at phenomenal events; here, too, those on assignment depended on the impressions of eyewitnesses. The event had the feeling more of an ethnological-research project than of an art opening. Cameras focussed on people viewing the photographs, and studied their reactions as if they were a tribe confronting artifacts from another world. Surprise! No one fainted at the sight of a black or white penis. Many viewers looked as if they’d seen one before.
Some commentators who are concerned about the impact of Mapplethorpe’s most explicit photography feel that viewers have to be protected because we don’t know what we’re going to see when we walk into a museum. But people who go to museums or galleries don’t run into art by mistake. Sometimes we know about the work and sometimes we don’t, but when we don’t we go because we want to look at what someone has decided was important enough to put on the walls. Then, there is the question “But what about the children?” One answer came from Barbara Jakobson, a collector and an active member of the art community. She said, “Young children shouldn’t be wandering around museums. At most shows they don’t have a good time anyway, and their unhappiness ruins the experience for everyone else.” (Her theory sounds as if it would be popular with certain children. I remember how when I was about nine I waited for my mother to get through a Henry Moore exhibit. I almost strangled myself in the hole of one of his mother-and-child pieces, I was so bored.) Jakobson’s dry humor is a relief in the midst of all the piety. Still, the question of whether or not children should be exposed to material that they may not have the capacity to understand and that might confuse or frighten them does need to be addressed. Children deserve the same serious consideration here as in relation to any comparable medium, be it the movies, television, or comic books. There’s the strategy museums have employed for years with Mapplethorpe’s work: a placard informing viewers that some of the material is sexually explicit. Although this idea of warning people may be useful in controversial situations—for adults as well as children—ultimately, ratings for art are a sad solution. It’s not just that if ratings are applied to art they are even more likely to be used absurdly and hypocritically than they are with movies. It’s that to think about art in these terms is not to know what art is.
At the beginning of this year, when all the corks popped to celebrate photography’ s hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary, it looked as though the spotlight would be on the medium because of the role it had played in the past. Instead, what is happening with photography in the present has grabbed all the attention. And it makes sense that it was photography that launched the latest attempt to define proper versus improper art. Almost a hundred years ago, Bernard Shaw wrote about the eﬀect of photography on people’s sense of propriety: “Photography is so truthful—its subjects are so obviously realities, and not idle fancies—that dignity is imposed on it as eﬀectually as it is on a church congregation. Unfortunately, so is that false decency, rightly detested by artists, which teaches people to be ashamed of their bodies. . . ." Sometimes what photography reveals is a reality that people find intolerable. We saw that lack of tolerance in the reaction against Mapplethorpe’s pictures. To take part in any eﬀort to bury his supposedly oﬀensive images is to be an accomplice in bigotry, to aid in the wiping out of his subjects by once again rendering them invisible. That, finally, is what is so disappointing about the Corcoran’s not standing up for Mapplethorpe’s work.
The Corcoran also betrayed its social contract with artists and viewers—not that it was the first museum to make such a mistake. Many museums operate from a position of fear, always worrying that images may be too graphic or extreme and upset the audience. Often, though, it is the people in charge of these
museums who have the closed minds; and the audience, as Mapplethorpe’s crowds prove, is fully capable of dealing with the controversial material.
Mapplethorpe understood that what he wanted to see—homosexuality brought out of the closet and into the light, sex brought out from the dark or up from under the counter, strong women, black men who are vigorous, beautiful, and classical instead of the usual bottom-of-the-pile image—others did, too. But, obviously, not everyone. One of the loudest voices to be raised against Mapplethorpe’s work is Hilton Kramer’s. Kramer is one of the few writers on art who made a statement in support of the Corcoran. His July Times article on the Mapplethorpe-Corcoran episode, “Is Art Above the Laws of Decency?,” could be read as a disgorging of bitterness against contemporary art and its values, and was full of anger at the professional art world—a community that by and large has stopped listening to him. Of all people, it was Minor White whom Kramer cited as an example of a photographer who approached male nudity the right way—that is, inoﬀensively. Kramer wrote, “There are male nudes in the Minor White retrospective now on view at the Museum of Modern Art that no one, as far as I know, has made any fuss about.” And he left it at that. He didn’t tell the reader that White’s nudes had never been out in public before, because of the very issues now surrounding Mapplethorpe. Kramer, touting White as a symbol of acceptability, either didn’t see the connections between the two photographers or didn’t want to get distracted by them. For instance, there’s that cancellation of White’s exhibition at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. Although the theme of that show was war, not sex, its disturbing images and text had quite a bit in common with Mapplethorpe’s S & M pictures. White’s allegedly unpatriotic "Amputations" sequence was criticized for its focus on the physical and emotional suﬀering of soldiers. Mapplethorpe’s subjects are civilians, and their clothes are costumes rather than uniforms, but they, too, are creatures who live in battle, and it’s a battle that both Mapplethorpe and White experienced at first hand: the struggle not to be condemned by society because of whom and how you love.
In the obvious ways, some of Mapplethorpe’s photographs are harder to look at than White’s. Mapplethorpe intended his work to challenge us. When he rst got rolling, he didn’t want to make the same old art. He wanted to get to us. He wanted to tap our most personal, least understood feelings. It is not possible to have an impersonal reaction to his sexual imagery—the part of us that it hits is the part that is most raw—so it’s not surprising that his pictures have elicited both love and hate. They have always had enormous personal meaning for me, extra-pictorial as well as pictorial. I rst saw them when I was in my mid-twenties. It was at a time in my life when I was afraid of what would happen—and worried about how my parents would feel—if I said I had a girlfriend, not a boyfriend. It was a relief to come upon an artist who addressed homosexuality in an unqueasy, honest, and often beautiful way. It was an inspiration to see self-portraits that were so candid, and at the same time so cool. It meant so much that he didn’t project himself as “a loser.” Later, Mapplethorpe and I became friends. His imagery wasn’t all that was honest about him. He was a straightforward man. It was his willingness—actually, his need—to reveal himself that made it possible for him to treat his subject so directly. I’ve written about him once before, for the book that was produced on the occasion of his retrospective at the Whitney. I remember struggling with the section of my essay that addressed his S & M pictures. They are so tough to look at that they brought on a horrible thought: What if these criminal-looking images were exploited by those who see homosexuality as a crime? What if the fact that Mapplethorpe had was to color the reception of his work? It didn’t happen then, but a year later, in Washington, we saw the exploitation and ignorance in action.
That Mapplethorpe was going to succeed was in the cards. He worked hard, all the time—and he understood what was missing from most of the other imagery that people were being oﬀered. Like Minor White, Mapplethorpe was a figure of his time, but times had changed. He was able to photograph the transition of homosexuality from a dirty secret that people felt they must hide to a vision of lives that could be led out in the open, without fear of recrimination. To some, his pictures seemed to be the mirror they had been waiting for all their lives. And his attitude toward his material was also welcome. No apologies, no disguises, no theories: he just laid it all out. Minor White didn’t have this chance; that’s what is so painful about his work. In the end, it is much harder to look at his photographs than to look at Mapplethorpe’s most frightening images. Photographs like Minor White’s suggest how much is lost when the public becomes an entity to be afraid of rather than a body of people to whom one tries to tell the truth.