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Imaging Sadomasochism:
Robert Mapplethorpe and the Masquerade of Photography

Essay by Richard Meyer
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Review of first San Francisco exhibition by
Robert McDonald

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Imaging Sadomasochism:
Robert Mapplethorpe and the Masquerade of Photography

by Richard Meyer
July 10, 1991

We should not...underestimate the signifying power of the spectacular subculture, not only as a metaphor for potential anarchy "out there" but as an actual mechanism of semantic disorder, a kind of temporary blockage in the system of representation.1

In the spring of 1987, 80 Langton Street, an alternative art space in San Francisco, mounted an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe's photography. The show consisted of 19 black and white photographs cataloguing a spectrum of gay male sadomasochistic practices including penis piercing, latex bondage, single and double fist-fucking, and anal penetration with a bull-whip. An image of this last practice was the only self-portrait in the exhibition and was, not incidentally, selected as the gallery announcement for the show (fig. 1)

Figure 1. Robert Mapplethorpe, Self-Portrait, 1978 (Gallery announcement, "Censored" exhibit at 80 Langton Street). Photograph copyright 1978
The Estate of Robert Mapplethorpe.

The exhibition's titled, Censored, referred to the curatorial circumstances surrounding and suppressing Mapplethorpe's work at the time: After attempting without success to show his explicit s/m photography in New York, Mapplethorpe secured an agreement from the Simon Lowinsky gallery, a commercial space in downtown San Francisco, to exhibit that work along with his portraits and still-lives. Shortly before the slated opening of the show, however, the Lowinsky gallery "edited" out the most explicit of the s/m images, belatedly declaring them unfit for commercial exhibition. 80 Langton Street then stepped in, agreeing to exhibit the suppressed work on the proviso that it would not be sold via their exhibition. 2

In that the 80 Langton gallery was located just off Folsom street, the center of San Francisco's leather scene, we could say that the censorship of Mapplethorpe's s/m photography resulted in the return of the work to the space of its subculture. Certainly the newfound authenticity of the "Censored" exhibit--its fringe venue just around the corner from the Ramrod, the Brig, and the South of the Slot--was called upon to produce the show as an avante-garde event, one to which members of both the commercial art world and San Francisco's high society were welcome. Listen, for example, to the description of Censored's opening night reception which appeared in the San Francisco Art Dealer's Associated Newsletter:

A fascinating cross-section of San Francisco society, and visitors from elsewhere, drank wine and bottled beer as they congratulated the New York photographer on his exhibition of photographs which explore the world of sado-masochism and its ritualistic trappings. Among those in the crowd, rubbing shoulders with the men in black leather, were popular ceramic artist Anita Mardikian, art collector Byron Meyer, University Art Museum Director James Elliot, male model Peter Berlin...San Francisco art dealers Simon Lowinsky, Ursuls Gropper [and so on]. 3

The clubbiness of this insider account might give us some pause in celebrating Mapplethorpe's resistance to the commercial censorship of his work in 1978. It is Mapplethorpe, after all, who straddles the "world of sado-masochism" and that of the art-market, forming the singular overlap in that "fascinating cross-section." And it is Mapplethorpe who is celebrated as the avatar of the erotic transgressions he photographs, the gay male artist engaging in the wild side of subculture in order to frame (and tame) its image for the gallery crowd. Patrons of the art circuit may now "rub shoulders" with the "men in black" while safely installed within the chic propriety of the art-opening. 4

The Censored exhibit would thus seem to fulfill the conventional function of documentary photography, namely the construction of an Other (whether victim, freak or specimen) for consumption by a culturally dominant, implicitly normative viewing audience. Martha Rosler describes the signifying procedures of such "concerned" photography as follows:

Documentary testifies...to the bravery or (dare we name it?) the manipulativeness of savvy of the photographer who entered a situation of physical danger, social restrictedness, human decay or combinations of these and saved us the trouble. Or who, like the astronauts, entertained us by showing us places we never hope to go: War photography, slum photography, "subculture" or cult photography, photography of the foreign poor, photography of deviance...5

As I have already suggested, this passage is descriptive of the "Censored" exhibit in significant ways: Mapplethorpe's photography did recover gay sadomasochism from the sites of its subcultural practice and bring it back to the avante-garde "safe space" of the alternative art gallery. Even perhaps especially at the present moment, we should acknowledge Mapplethorpe's commodification of gay subculture and his complicity with the procedures of the commercial art market. 6

Yet the fact that the Mapplethorpe's s/m photographs sated the art market's desire for a documentary "shock of the new" (or, as one critic would have it, a "shock of the black and blue" 7) does not eradicate the subversive valence and resistant pull of the project as a whole. While Mapplethorpe and his dealers were clearly manipulating a sexual subculture to economic ends, there were other pressures applied by his images of gay sadomasochism, ways in which they could not be--and still can not be--dismissed as so much subcultural profiteering of avante-garde exploitation.

I will suggest that Mapplethorpe, far from framing gay sadomasochism as the curious object of "concerned" photography, calls upon the intrinsic theatricality of s/m to stage the artifice and very masquerades of photography. 8 At their best, Mapplethorpe's images of gay sadomasochism subvert the conventions of documentary by emphasizing their insufficiency as indexical records of subculturally experience. Far from "saving us the trouble" of going there ourselves, Mapplethorpe's work announces the impossibility of ever knowing, of ever fully entering, the site of gay sadomasochism through photography.

Figure 3. Robert Mapplethorpe, Helmut, 1979. Copyright The Estate of Robert Mapplethorpe.

Consider, for example,the way that the 1979 photograph of Helmut (figure 3) emphasizes in art-studio backdrop, that framing swathe of fabric, the elegant if unlikely stance of the model atop a pedestal. Mapplethorpe's portrait glosses the codes not so much of gay sadomasochism as of art photography, of its preparations and beautifications. The formalist play with light and shade is insistent here and unapologetic, the leather jacket becoming blackest, for instance, when it overlaps the white muslin fabric behind it. Yet Mapplethorpe has been careful not to abstract the image out of all erotic specificity--the spreading of Helmut's legs, the leather tie string which delimit ass from thigh, the suggestion of jerking off made by the placement of the right hand--these details will assert themselves should the viewer become too interested in photographic chiaroscuro or abstraction for abstraction's sake. In denying visual access to Helmut's face, cock, and hands. however, Mapplethorpe's photograph refuses to depict an explicit practice of masturbation or to portray Helmut as a leatherman with any highly individuated identity. 9 Rather, the image is a portrait of the leather paraphernalia itself and the way it is erotically embodied--we might even say modeled--by one practitioner.

Figure 4. Robert Mapplethorpe, Joe, 1978. Copyright The Estate of Robert Mapplethorpe

Figure 5. Robert Mapplethorpe, Untitled. 1978. Copyright The Estate of Robert Mapplethorpe.

As with Helmut, Mapplethorpe's 1978 portrait of Joe (fig 4) is not concerned with catching its subject in spontaneous sexual activity but with describing his erotic costume: the strap-on tube extending from the mouth, the ridges of the rubber hood, the studded collar, the industrial gloves, the sheen and torsion of the latex uniform. The premeditation of Joe's pose--the fact that he has donned his latex and is stilling his body for Mapplethorpe's camera--is emphasized by the visual evidence of the image. This is no vérité realm of the street or the sex-club but an acknowledged artistic set-up, the studio space of bare floorboards and benches, of backdrops and strobe lights.

Even less than Helmut or Joe, does Mapplethorpe's Untitled photograph from 1978 (fig 5) abstract its model out of the specificity of his sexual subculture. Indeed, it appears that the sitter has here become subordinated to his s/m fetish, as though through the very posturing of his body, he is attempting to conform to the demands of the cowboy boot. Consider the rounding over of the shoulders, the loss of the lower part of the face, the way in which the body, however we trace its contours, continually returns our gaze to the boot. Here again, Mapplethorpe has exploited the fetishistic capabilities of photography--the way it can deploy light and texture and cropping to isolate and eroticize an object--and crossed them with the fetishes of gay sadomasochism.

It is on just this point that I would distinguish Mapplethorpe's portraiture of white s/m practitioners from his later series of black male nudes. In the s/m work, fetish objects and sexual paraphernalia mark the body of the model and signify his particular erotic trip: we may not be offered much information about Helmut but we do know that the harness, biker jacket, and boots are an erotic masquerade of his own choosing, just as we know that Joe's latexwear is his and so on. The sheer diversity of the erotic props and paraphernalia on display in the s/m project asserts that Mapplethorpe is cataloguing a collective subculture, not merely his own desires or favored practices as part of that subculture, But in Mapplethorpe's images of black male nudes, in the 1981 portrait of Ajitto, for example (fig 6), the model's body is stripped of any marker of sexual identity or subjectivity--no traces here of the black man's own erotic investments or fetish objects. Kobena Mercer and Isaac Julien have rightly observed of these photographs that,

As all references to a social, political, or cultural context are ruled out of the frame...the images reveal more about what the eye/I behind the lens wants to see than they do about the relatively anonymous black male models whose beautiful bodies we see. 10

Wherein the s/m pictures Mapplethorpe frame the erotic costume and sadomasochistic equipment of other white gay men, in the series of black male nudes, the model himself becomes the erotic paraphernalia, the very fetish of Mapplethorpe's camera.

Figure 6. Robert Mapplethorpe, Ajitto, 1981. Copyright The Estate of Robert Mapplethorpe

Continued in Part 2