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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

Part 3

I would like to return, finally, to the Self-Portrait with bull-whip (fig 13) because I consider it Mapplethorpe's most ambitious attempt at cross-referencing the codes of sadomasochism with those of art photography. The bravado of the self-portrait derives in large part from the spectacle of it anality and from the fact that the asshole on offer is the photographer's own. Within the history of art, one is hard-pressed indeed to recall another self-portrait, whether painterly or photographic, which represents its artist as anally penetrable. In lieu of the conventional self-portrait's claim to phallic mastery and professional self-regard, Mapplethorpe's image insists on the sadomasochistic potentials and pleasures of the artist's opened asshole. If, as Guy Hocquenhem has argued, "the anus has no social position except sublimination...[it] expresses privatization itself" 13 then Mapplethorpe's Self-Portrait with bull-whip might be seen as a radical desublimation of the anus, a publicizing of the asshole and its erotic possibilities.

But even as the Self-Portrait articulates Mapplethorpe's sadomasochistic identity, it reminds us that such an articulation is occurring within the prepared space of studio photography, of white walls, varnished floorboards, and draped chairs. By these lights, the fact that Mapplethorpe is at once the agent and object of anal penetration, at once fucker and fucked, may be read as referring to the procedure of making a self-portrait, of being at once the productive subject and the receptive object of photography. In short, the reflexivity of Mapplethorpe's auto-penetration might be said to stand in for that of his auto-portraiture.

To extend this reading of the image, consider the way in which Mapplethorpe's bull-whip snakes not only out of his body but out of the visual field, leading from his opened asshole to the beholder's position of gazing. Might we not see the bull-whip as a metaphor for the apparatus of photography, a surrogate cable or extension cord tying Mapplethorpe's posed body to the clicking camera off-frame? 14 If so, we could then interpret Mapplethorpe's cupped left hand as mimicking the action of triggering a shutter-release. Read in this way, the bull-whip, a fetish object of s/m, stands in for the technologies of photographing the self, technologies implied by the metaphor to be fetishistic.

And yet, if the bull-whip is an instrument of sexual pleasure and penetrability, the very composure of Mapplethorpe's expression seems at odds with it. It is though he is performing anal-penetration without seeming to experience it, or at least without offering the traces of that experience to the viewer's gaze: there is no erotic release, no register of sexualized pain, no expressive evidence of the fact of being fucked. Instead, Mapplethorpe seems consummately in control of his appearance before the camera. And if his gaze acknowledges that he is is being caught (by his camera, by us) in the act of anal penetration, it also signifies his mastery over both the photograph and the sentient body depicted in it. 15

I argued earlier that Mapplethorpe's most compelling work on s/m refutes the documentary distance between photographer and photographed, between the empowered subject and the curious object of documentary vision. There is, however, a quite different distance on which the 1978 Self-Portrait insists, namely, the distance between Mapplethorpe's erotic practice of sadomasochism--say at the Mineshaft of The Anvil--and his masquerade of it in the studio, for the camera. What we are offered in the Self-Portrait is not a documentary image of gay sadomasochism but an acknowledged simulation of it, a performance of auto-penetration which visually glosses Mapplethorpe's own claim that "sex without the camera is sexier." 16

In the 1978 Self-portrait as in most of the images in the s/m project, Mapplethorpe is after something rather more ambitious than a documentary fiction of subcultural verisimilitude. In photographing the paraphernalia of sadomasochism while allowing its practioners to turn away from, or better, to look resolutely at the camera, Mapplethorpe stages gay s/m as an erotic theater whose players determine their own props and costumes, their own pleasures and script; a theater whose best performances occur beyond the frame of art photography and are therefore not accessible to the avante-garde viewer in search of Otherness.

Dick Hebdige writes,
What distinguishes the visual ensembles of spectacular subcultures from those favoured in the surrounding culture [is that] they are obviously fabricated [and] they display their own codes or at least demonstrate that codes are there to be used and abused. In this they go against the grain of a mainstream culture whose principal defining characteristic...is a tendency to masquerade as nature. 17

The achievement of Robert Mapplethorpe's s/m project is that it displays the codes and erotic fabrications of gay sadomasochism all the while acknowledging, indeed actively calling into metaphoric use, the masquerades of photography.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self-Portrait, 1988. Copyright The Estate of Robert Mapplethorpe.


1 Dick Hebdige, Subculture, The Meaning of Style (London: Methuen, 1979) 90.

2 The Censored episode in San Francisco should be read as a pre-history of the recent and far more repressive censorship of Mapplethorpe's work: the July1989 cancellation of The Perfect Moment, a full-scale retrospective of Mapplethorpe's career, by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C. (the show was subsequently revived by the Washington Project for the Arts, an alternative arts space, and then travelled to Berkeley, Cincinnati, and Boston); a punitive reduction in federal funding to the National Endowment for the Arts in the amount of $45,000--the sum of the grants awarded by the NEA to the Mapplethorpe retrospective and to Andres Serrano, another photographer whose work was deemed "obscene" by members of Congress; new restrictions on the NEA's funding procedure based on the perceived content and "decency" of the work under consideration (the restrictions have since been repealed; and, in April 1990, the temporary closure of the The Perfect Moment by Cincinnati police and the indictment of its local exhibitor on obscenity charges--charges for which the defendant was tried and finally exonerated.
Curatorial information concerning the "Censored" show was related to me by Renny Pritikin, director of the New Langton Art gallery, in a phone interview on November 11, 1989 and confirmed by Robert McDonald, former board member of the 80 Langton Street gallery, in a phone interview on November 14, 1989.

3 Rita Brooks, "Censored," San Francisco Art Dealer's Associated Newsletter (unpaginated), May/June 1978.

4 Indeed, Simon Lowinsky, the very dealer who initially suppressed Mapplethorpe's work is named on the list of prominent guests and in one of the photographs accompanying the notice, Lowinsky and Mapplethorpe are seen posing together for the opening-night camera, the former in jacket and tie, the latter in full leather.

5 Martha Rosler, 3 Works (Halifax: Nova Scotia: Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1981) 73.

6 The status of Mapplethorpe's photography is no less paradoxical today than it was in 1978: even as it is now censored and censured, Mapplethorpe's work, at up to $35,000 per print, defines the very apex of the contemporary photographic market. The recent battle over the putative "indecency" of Mapplethorpe's work served, among other purposes, to inflate the market value of that work. See Grace Glueck, "Publicity is Enriching Mapplethorpe Estate" The New York Times, April 16, 1990: B1.

7 See David Herskovits, "Shock of the Black and Blue" Soho News (May 20-26, 1981): 9-11.

8 Gay sadomasochism is here understood as consensual erotic practice between members of the same sex in which the roles of power and powerlessness are rendered explicit and performative. The word "performative" is here meant to call attention to the intrinsic theatricality of gay sadomasochism and especially to the use of erotic props and fetish paraphernalia (leather and latex, clamps and whips, masks, harnesses, hoods, boots) and to the sexualized, stylized role-playing of top and bottom, master and slave, father and son, cop and criminal, etc.

For more on the theatrics of gay sadomasochism, see Don Miesen, "SM: A View of Sadomasochism," Drummer 10, No.87: 15-17, 100-103 and Jeffrey Weeks' Sexuality and Its Discontents: Meanings, Myths, & Modern Sexualities (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul): 236-41. For an excellent discussion of the theatricality of lesbian s/m see Pat Califia's "Unraveling the Sexual Fringe: A Secret Side of Lesbian Sexuality," The Advocate, December 27, 1979, 19ff.

9 Although the viewer is, of course, free to imagine the frontal view which the image denies: my own such view sees that Helmut, now in the midst of jerking off, is taking a hit of poppers, hence the crook of his left elbow as that arm reaches upward and the droop of his head as it receives the amyl.

10 Kobena Mercer and Isaac Julien "Imaging the Black Man's Sex" Photography/Politics: Two, 1987 reprinted in Male Order, Unwrapping Masculinity (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1988) 143-144.

11 Mapplethorpe's now notorious Jim and Tom, 1977-78, a photograph of two men engaging in "water sports" in a Sausalito bunker, is the obvious exception to this tendency. See Robert Mapplethorpe (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1988): 63.

12 Son of Drummer was a special edition of Drummer magazine, the premier gay porn publication devoted to leather and s/m. My selection of figure nine as a comparison to Mapplethorpe's work was prompted by the fact that the issue of Son of Drummer in which it appears also reproduced a portfolio of Mapplethorpe photographs from the "Censored" exhibit.
See Son of Drummer (1978): "The Robert Mapplethorpe Gallery": 14-17 and (for figure 9) "Color Shots from--The Room's: David Warner's Hot New Leather Film": 5.

13 Guy Hocquenhem, Homosexual Desire, trans. Daniella Dangoor (London: Allison & Busby, 1978) 83.

14 I am indebted to Susan Scott Parrish for this formulation.

15 According to Susan Sontag, "I once asked Mapplethorpe what he does with himself when he poses for the camera, and he replied that he tries to find that part of himself that is self-confident." In "Certain Mapplethorpe's,'' preface to Certain People (Pasadena: Twelvetrees Press, 1985): unpaginated.

16 This was Mapplethorpe's response when asked whether he derived sexual pleasure from photographing gay sadomasochism. Quoted in an unpublished transcript of a public discussion of the "Censored" exhibition held at 80 Langton Street, April 1978, and later cited by Robert McDonald in "Censored," The Advocate June 28, 1978, Issue 244: 21 (Second Section).

17 Hebdige: 191-192.