robert mapplethorpe Bob Love
Lena Snow
3 min

Black Silk: Robert Mapplethorpe’s Photography of Black Men

3 min

Beautiful black bodies set in scene, masculine and strong, yet also sensitively captured in delicate black-and-white photography by Mapplethorpe, are still not only quite fascinating to look at, but remain a controversy in the art world.

Although Mapplethorpe’s photography has been highly praised and valued, it has also been criticized for being too stereotypical and for simply expressing racial structures already inherent in society.

 robert mapplethorpe Christopher Holly

Fig. 1: Christopher Holly, 1980

Sexual Objectification

There has been the accusation of so-called “sexual racism” in Mapplethorpe’s photography, especially by gay white men who would see black men only as an erotic fantasy and subject for their sexual desires. Black gay men in this context are a symbol deprived of their personality, cultural background and emotional or even human side. The debate has been about whether it simply mirrored white supremacy and power over black men and fueled the fashion industry even more to present the picture of a typical “black stallion” in the media.

 robert mapplethorpe cock

Fig. 2: Cock, 1985

Obsession With Big Black Genitalia

Another accusation has been that Mapplethorpe’s work was not about aesthetics or depicting beauty, but rather making racial differences even clearer. One of his most controversial pictures “Man in a Polyester Suit” that shows a man in a suit with his black penis coming out of the zipper, was criticized for being dehumanizing, because Mapplethorpe did not show the man’s face, therefore ignoring his identity and personality. Critics like the black author Essex Hemphill or film producer and artist Isaac Julien concluded that he would dominate and control the black male body by fetishizing it in his photographs. The focus on the black penis would only undermine that Mapplethorpe flaunted his provocative obsession of black genitalia in front of his audience regardless of the impact.

mapplethorpe Man in polyester suit

Fig. 3: Man in polyester suit, 1980             

mapplethorpe cock

Fig. 4: Cock, 1982

Like Black Bronze

One could certainly argue that Mapplethorpe was obsessed with black men. However, in describing his work himself, he expressed a rather artistical and even personal attachment. His objects often were men he was involved with and was keen on showing through his art. “I often say that photographing black men is like photographing bronze”, he said and explained that his intentions were never to exploit Afro-American men in any way.

robert mapplethorpe Bob Love

Fig. 5: Bob Love, 1979

robert mapplethorpe Jimmy Freeman

Fig. 6: Jimmy Freeman, 1983

robert mapplethorpe Derrick Cross

Fig. 7: Derrick Cross, 1983

mapplethorpe Gregg Cauley

Fig. 8: Gregg Cauley, 1980

robert mapplethorpe untitled

Fig. 9: Untitled, 1981

In the extended Premium edition more about Mapplethorpe's obsession with the artistic process, his relation to his models, the black rebellion in his photography and much more visual examples of his 'black' sensuality.

Click HERE for drags, drugs, and sexual dramas in the photography of Nan Goldin

Source: Mapplethorpe, teNeues Publishing, 1992; Robert Mapplethorpe “Black Book”, St. Martin’s Press, 1988