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Imaging Sadomasochism:
Robert Mapplethorpe and the Masquerade of Photography

Essay by Richard Meyer
Part 1
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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

Part 2

In turning back to the s/m project, I want to suggest that Mapplethorpe's insistence on the premeditations of photography obtains no only to his portraits of individual practitioners but to those of sadomasochistic couples as well. Although it is in portraits of the s/m couple that the we might most anticipate depictions of sexual exchange, it is precisely here that Mapplethorpe most pointedly refuses that depiction. 11 The subjects of Mapplethorpe's Elliot and Dominick (fig 7), for example, self-confidently present their erotic positions and equipment to the viewer. But even as Dominic is strung up and enchained by the apparatus of sadomasochistic and even as Elliot grabs both his own crotch and that of his submissive partner, neither man seems enthralled by the sexual act. It is as though they are waiting, perhaps resentfully, for the camera to absent itself so that the pleasure-session might begin or resume. Through the frontality of their stance and the certainty of their look, Elliot and Dominick project a resolute awareness of their roles, not only as sexual master and slave, but as subjects before the camera's stilling gaze. Rather then enact a pretense of photographic transparency, the couple insist upon the artifice of their pose, challenging our spectatorial power to see and freeze them by signifying their agency in allowing a prepared, patently limited view of their sadomasochistic "image".

To ground my claim that Mapplethorpe's photographs draw a visible distance from the conventions of "subculture photography", I will compare Dominick and Elliot to a photograph of gay s/m which might properly be called documentary: Mark Chester's 1982 image of two men at a San Francisco sex club which accompanied an Advocate exposé on gay s/m entitled "To the Limits and Beyond" (fig 9). Note that the two men pictured are seemingly oblivious to the presence of the camera. that their spectacular fucking has been caught in media res though also from some distance, and that the subordinate details of the image--long and obscuring shadows, crushed mattress, tangle of chains--signify as random and spontaneous registered. Such are the visual codes which testify to an authentic documentary adventure, to the photographic capture of gay sex "beyond the limits." Such are the codes which a photograph like Mapplethorpe's Elliot and Dominick avoids at all costs.

Figure 7. Robert Mapplethorpe, Elliot and Dominick, 1979. Copyright The Estate of Robert Mapplethorpe

If Mapplethorpe measures a distance from the conventions of documentary photography so too does he avoid the typical strategies of s/m pornography. Compare Elliot and Dominick to a soft-core porn photograph from the 1987 Son of Drummer magazine (fig 9). 12 In the Son of Drummer image, the anonymous models produce a fantasy of spontaneity and erotic release for the desiring gaze of the beholder. As viewers, we are invited to disregard the material production of the image (the presence of the photographer, the lighting of the scene, the hire and costuming of the models) so as to take more consummate pleasure in its erotic content. Apart from its assignment of sexual dominance and submission, the photograph offers no subjectivity or particular identity to the male models it displays. And indeed, even the men's s/m roles appear reversible since both models are similarly outfitted for sex (tit-clamps, leather harnesses and hoods) and are, so far as one can tell, physically identical. Unlike this fantasy image of muscular, spontaneous sadomasochism, Mapplethorpe's Elliot and Dominic both insists on the specific identity of its sitters and emphasizes the artifice and premeditations of photography.

Figure 8. Mark I. Chester 1982.

photo © Mark I. Chester
Slot, Rm 329
from the series, City of Wounded Boys & Sexual Warriors, 1982

The self-conscious staginess of Mapplethorpe's s/m project is perhaps best characterized by his 1979 portrait of Bryan Ridley and Lyle Heeter (fig 10). In this image, Mapplethorpe exploits a mismatch between the couple's sadomasochistic outfitting and their domestic interior, between their leather, chains, and master/slave hierarchy on the one hand and their wingback chair, oriental rug, grasscloth wall covering, and white antlers endtable on the other. This disjunction not only defuses the leather machismo of Ridley and Heeter, it also asserts that neither their erotic costume nor their domestic context--neither their chains nor their faux-rococo table clock--are sufficient metaphors of their identity. The spectacular contradictions of this image undo any interpretive move which would essentialize Ridley and Heeter in or as their sodomasochistic roles.

Figure 9. Untitled image from Son of Drummer magazine 1978.

In terms of the photograph's surprising overlay of sadomasochism and domesticity, consider the way in which the couple's stance mimics a conventional marriage-portrait pose, with the dominant partner standing behind his seated and submissive mate. For an example of this pose in its more conventional format, we may look to Cecil Beaton's photograph of Queen Elizabeth and the Prince Consort taken on the occasion of the Queen's coronation in 1953 (fig 11). Even in the Beaton image, however, the standard positions of (male) dominance and (female) subservience are revised insofar as the Queen's superior authority is signified by the elaborate regalia which unfurls from her seated position and by the marginalized position of the Prince within the visual field. Needless to say, Mapplethorpe's portrait provides a far more radical revision of the marriage pose than to Beaton's since the "husband" is now a leather daddy who restrains his strapping male mate with a leash of chains in one hand and a gently brandished riding crop in the other.

Figure 10. Robert Mapplethorpe, Bryan Ridley and Lyle Heeter. 1979. Copyright The Estate of Robert Mapplethorpe.

Figure 11. Cecil Beaton, Queen Elizabeth II's Coronation, 1953. Copyright Cecil Beaton/Camera Press/Globe Photos, Inc.

While Ridley and Heeter clearly signify their respective roles of erotic dominance and submission, each man is equally dominant--or better, defiant--in the face of the camera. The couple seem to be warning us that although an economy of top and bottom exists between them, neither man will readily submit to the gaze of the beholder, The intensity of their look out at the camera was necessary, I think, if the photograph was to avoid condescending to it sitters. We can imagine how easily the contradictions of the image might otherwise have framed Ridley and Heeter as deluded or pathetic.

We can imagine, for example, how a photographer like Diane Arbus might have handled the scene. Arbus's 1963 photograph Widow in Her Bedroom (fig 12), a portrait which similarly pivots around the relation of sitter to domestic space, helps clarify the choices made by Mapplethorpe in Bryan Ridley and Lyle Heeter. In Arbus's photograph, the bedroom clutter and Orientalized collectibles of the widow seem to frame her freakishness, to incarcerate her within it. Notice, for example, the way the widow's vase and bureau appear to dwarf her body, nearly to crowd her out of the room. Now compare how Mapplethorpe's couple preside over their space and see to dictate its scale, how securely Ridley inhabits his large wingback chair, for instance, and how well Heeter's body fills the gap formed by the parted curtains. Or contrast the widow's utter indecision about how to sit in her chair--about how to pose for Arbus's camera, really--with the certain stance and confident look of Ridley and Heeter. Mapplethorpe's image admits no disdain for its subjects, none of that Arbus certainty that the sitter will always be bottom for both the photographer and the viewer.

Continued in Part 3