I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
A discussion between long-time BOMB contributor Gary Indiana and the late Robert Mapplethorpe on the New York art scene of the late 1980s and the difficulties of intimacy, comfort and eroticism in photography and portraiture.
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Gary Indiana Here’s a good question: why haven’t there been any museum shows of your work in New York?
Robert Mapplethorpe That is a good question, but you could figure it out pretty easily. The contents of certain photographs are a bit more than certain people can deal with. It’s that way to a degree, anyway. The fact that I’m a New Yorker makes it a lot easier to get shows in European institutions—it’s easier for them to take a show of controversial material from a foreigner, someone who isn’t from there.
GI When you do a show, do you have problems with censorship?
RM Indirectly, yes. I haven’t had someone specifically say, “I can’t do that because this picture’s in there,” or “You better take that one out.” But it’s a heavy statement for somebody to take me on—in other words, it’s a lot easier just to avoid it. I’ve had a lot of that over the years. I am having a show at ICP in Philadelphia which is coming up in December, 1988; hopefully, that will travel to New York. We’re working on it now.
GI Have there been situations where a gallery or institution says they want to do a show of your work, and they specify what kind of work they want?
RM Maybe. It doesn’t bother me. I’ve always been easy and flexible about that, except when it comes to showing in my New York commercial gallery—I’m very specific about what I want in that show. But when it comes to other places, I like all the pictures equally. I don’t care if somebody just wants to show flowers; I’ll just show flowers. I’ve never been strict—you know—“If that picture doesn’t go in, I don’t do the show.” I’m much more flexible than that. If someone wants to do a portrait show, I do a portrait show. It’s not usually an issue, because I don’t care. Sometimes they feel they can put certain kinds of pictures in, but can’t go any further—maybe a cock, but it couldn’t be hard. That’s all right. I’ve seen too many artists being so overly sensitive to how their work is represented, and it’s so unattractive that I try to avoid it at all costs.
GI Can you say something about these new still lifes?
RM I’m doing a series of dye transfers with color images, which I’ve never shown. I’ve done color pictures since I started taking pictures, but I never spent too much time with color, and never exposed it to the public. I always wanted to do dye transfers and couldn’t afford them. And now I can, so I’ve gone back. That’s a brand new picture, the last one in the group. And, had I not been doing all the magazine work I’ve been doing, I probably wouldn’t have come up with an image like that. I worked with an art director, setting it up. A lot of people who are “art photographers” won’t do anything commercial, they say it’s going to destroy the art. But I think it can add to it, actually. I think it’s a cop-out to take that attitude. Some of my better pictures, wouldn’t have been done had I not done work for House and Garden and all that stuff.
GI I probably wouldn’t have written anything in the last two years if I didn’t have a job, actually. It’s funny, when you were talking about prima donnas … I’ve always found that completely unattractive also.
RM I’ve seen people at openings, straight people I’m talking about, running around so nervous. You should be able to have a good time at your own opening. It’s your work and you’ve done it all your life, and if you don’t feel comfortable with it, something’s wrong. But I’ve seen them, real butch guys become these sort of—
GI Like name deleted, my god.
RM I’m sure.
GI Case history in paranoia.
RM It’s so unattractive. I don’t want myself ever to be seen that way.
GI In your last show, you combined photographs with objects, which is something you tried doing years ago, too; now it’s starting to come together.
RM I can finally afford to do it now. And putting photographs on other surfaces, getting rid of the paper … unfortunately, that’s very expensive. I don’t see them as photographs any more. I see them as objects that happen to use photography.
GI Is it hard to get a good price for them?
RM In relationship to painting, I guess. If I was around as long as I’ve been around, as a painter, the object I’d be selling would bring a hell of a lot more money than the things I do sell. But they’re still selling for a substantial amount. A framed piece, I think, is $15,000—a lot for a photograph.
GI That’s good.
RM It costs a couple thousand, maybe, to produce, and you split it with your gallery; it’s not $50,000, which is what a painting might cost, I’m not competing with that. Photography is a whole different—it’s so many different things. I think it’s more interesting than being a painter because you’ve got all these options. You can do books, you can do postcards, you can do calendars, you can work for magazines, you can reprint, you can do album covers; then you make art objects as well. Some money comes from that, it all adds up. It’s not that easy; you have to work hard. But I wouldn’t trade places with a painter. I think you have a really interesting life as a photographer. To me the most important thing is my experience, and not anything else. I care more about that than anything—I care about what I’ve gone through.
GI What about getting someone you’re photographing to do what you want, or rather, to be comfortable with you. Everybody approaches that in a different way. How long does it take you to see what you want to do, say, when you’re doing a portrait?
RM It really depends on the person and on the situation. I don’t have a formula. It’s a matter of being sensitive. Often photographers aren’t. I’ve been at the other end, and I’ve seen how somebody can extend a photo shoot beyond the point where it’s comfortable. Maybe it’s what they want in their photographs, but it’s not my approach at all. You take a certain number of rolls of film, and after that it becomes work, the magic moment’s gone. I think photographers are often unaware of that, and continue on, and force the issue. But I’m very flexible. I just did nudes, of this boy over here. He really didn’t want to, he was uncomfortable doing nudes. I told him, I don’t want you to do anything you don’t want to do. I said we can do them now, we can do them another time if you feel more comfortable, or we don’t have to do them at all. When I was a kid, I remember, I was 16 or something, I found myself in a situation with a dirty old man wanting to do nudes and being pushy, pulling my clothes off, it was horrible. I would never do that to somebody. I don’t ever want anybody to do something they don’t want to do.
GI I’m curious, because in your work, you really eroticize everything you take a picture of. That’s one of the chief characteristics of your photography, that you have an erotic vision of the world … but when you’re taking the photograph, let’s say, of a cock, does that become something like a vase, or …
RM Well, yes. Yes and no. Basically, I try to get it in the same position I would if it were a solitary object. But it’s more difficult because you have a person with this thing, you’ve got to deal with the personality, even though it’s a body part, you’re still dealing with a personality that’s attached to the body part. It’s more complicated, but otherwise it’s the same. I mean, I’m not looking at it in a different way … I’m looking at things the way I look at them, no matter what they are.
GI I wonder also about the S&M pictures, which I don’t think have ever been shown in New York.
RM Not as a group of pictures. Some of them may have been shown—there were some in a show at Robert Miller, but I never made an issue of it …
GI Were those things that were happening for the camera, or were they things that were happening and you were there with the camera?
RM They were happening for the camera. Almost always. Maybe one or two documentary kinds of situations that I found myself in, where it was somewhat of a blur because I was documenting something that was already happening. But for the most part, those situations were created with my photographs in mind. The situation had already existed, they weren’t people play-acting and doing something they hadn’t done before; they had put it together for that photo session. So I had a very large amount of control over the situation.
GI Do you think these specific pictures have caused problems for you, critically, for instance?
RM They have. I mean it’s funny. Even with people who maybe just know about them. It’s been an element that people can’t take. It’s funny to think about them. It’s past history to me, but I think they’ve influenced the way people look at my pictures, even though they might not have even seen the S&M pictures. I mean, I’ve had reviews and such, especially in the gay press, where they’ve been really nasty about them. They attacked me as a person, and decided I was a certain kind of person because only a certain kind of person would take those kind of pictures. It was so weird. It really depressed me. It isn’t negative criticism that makes you feel good—though, in the long run, it doesn’t hurt in terms of your own mystique or whatever. But that certainly isn’t something you’d go out for. I mean I’ve never—I think people thought I was so clever I wanted that kind of reception. I didn’t want that.
GI A lot of people have strange, puritanical ideas about what it’s correct to look at, what’s correct to make pictures of.
We move from Robert Mapplethorpe’s loft to a nearby restaurant. The conversation turns to “candid” photography and taking a camera around in public.
RM … The best picture I got at that party was Mick Jagger telling a secret, Bianca telling a secret to Mick. And I snapped it—and I felt so awful. I thought, that sort of stuff epitomizes—stealing secrets and stuff, it’s just too not me at all. I don’t want to know those secrets, I don’t care that much. It’s so strange, you’re a total voyeur in that situation. You’ve got a camera and the camera’s between you and whatever else is happening. Although I’d been invited as a guest, I ended up not being a guest at all. I was just recording it. I wasn’t enjoying it. And I think a lot of people who take photographs like that, they don’t know how to enjoy things without a camera. They use that as a way to have a good time—that’s what they think a good time is, because they don’t know how to have a good time, basically.
GI Holding a camera, to me, changes everything …
RM It does. Even some of the sex pictures, it was almost like theater that was happening for the photo session—it wasn’t sex. Taking photographs of sex … if you’re a voyeur, fine, but it’s not sex. It has nothing to do with sex. Even if there’s an orgasm. It’s all work. It’s made to look like fun, but it’s not. I made a great effort to take those pictures. But so did the people in them. They weren’t doing it for money, they believed in what they were doing at that time.
GI If you want to take someone’s picture—
RM I don’t want to take anybody’s picture! People ask me, who would you really like to photograph? I don’t have anyone, you know? I’m doing a book on women, my next book’s called On Women, I have to come up with a list. I have to make an effort, to get some of these name women because the publisher wants some in there … I could care less. I see the point; but then you have to write a letter, get on the phone, talk to their agent—it’s so awfully complicated. Because of that, I’ve never photographed Mick Jagger, I’ve never photographed—you can go through the list—David Bowie, most of the key people, because it’s too complicated. I always hope that maybe they’ll come to me, but I don’t want them badly enough to go through those changes. But what were you asking me?
GI I wondered, if you just wanted to photograph someone you saw—are you too shy to approach them?
RM I’ve tried that once or twice in my life. There was somebody who was 7’1” in California, who was so incredibly good looking, he was so tall, and I thought, “God, if I was a filmmaker I’d make a film around that guy,” he was that tall and that good-looking. I went up to him and talked to him, gave him my card, I was in California at the time—and it never happened … it doesn’t seem to happen to me that way. Usually I meet someone socially. Or sometimes people send me people. But often they think it’s the perfect person for me to photograph, and it’s not at all. I’m not aggressive about getting people. Either they want it … Photographing some of the crazies, the complicated people, they didn’t understand that what they were doing was a little better than porn. I mean, at this point, I’m too old. At one time, I could put up with all these crazy personalities, but if they don’t get it, I’d rather not do it. When you’re young you have to take chances. I’m not talking about the pictures themselves, of course I still take risks, but with the people … it’s not worth the effort, the aggravation. I’ve done that area enough, I can do something else. I don’t think I’m typical as a photographer, in a lot of ways, because I still say my life’s experiences are much more important than the photographs … the real experience without the camera. I have to do it, and I do it, but … I’ve heard stories, where a photographer worked for a number of months to get a certain person, and finally they had a date to shoot, and he jumped up and down saying, “I got him! I got him!”—when I heard that, it sounded so creepy.
GI When you started doing photography, you’d been doing other things for a long time?
RM I went through art school; I was more involved in drafting and drawing, and painting, and working with photographic materials from other sources than my own. I was cutting up photographs, into collage elements … at some point, I was getting into appropriation, taking from these pictures. Then I figured that somebody would sue me some day for stealing their pictures … And, at some point, I felt sort of guilty about it. I felt this was really not my own picture, though I was painting on top of it and stuff like that; I thought if the base picture was my own it would be more exciting. But I also thought, “photographer,” I don’t want to do that. I want to be more inventive. Somebody gave me a Polaroid camera; for years I worked solely with a Polaroid. Which is how I developed my whole style: instant playback.
GI It’s odd how in certain formats you can’t get black and white any more. Polaroid black and white is really hard to get. It’s like when they colorize the old black and white movies.
RM I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a colorized movie. I see them on TV sometimes, I guess. I see the point. Everyone looks at everything in color now; if they switch the channels and see black and white, they think, “Oh, old movie.”
GI Black and White should be big, anyway, I think. What are you collecting now, glass?
RM I don’t know what l’m collecting any more. I find everything too expensive to really have fun with. It’s so serious; as soon as you start, anything of quality is in the thousands of dollars. And I only collect for fun, to have something, and when it gets beyond a certain price, you’ve got to think too much about what you’re doing. I was thinking about going back to old photography, which I collected, and then sold at one point; now I’ve got another collection. I mean, I’ve always had something to collect, but right now I don’t. I was collecting something called serpentine, which are those urns, the ones with the fruit. But now they’re thousands of dollars. For some decorative object, it seems like too much money … not even the money, just the idea of it. Everything is so expensive. Have you ever eaten in that sandwich shop on Madison Avenue called E.A.T.?
RM It’s between $16 and $18 per sandwich. It’s not that I don’t have the money, I do have it, but there’s something indecent about spending that kind of money for a sandwich, in what’s basically a diner.
GI I was amazed in San Francisco, that things were so cheap.
RM I love these Italian restaurants in New York that are $20 for pastas, you know? It’s amazing what you pay … it’s like $40 for a plate of spaghetti …
GI This friend of mine this summer went into one of the Korean vegetable places to buy some corn—
RM I have a phobia about those places.
GI And they wanted to charge him a dollar for three ears of corn. Corn, you know? What they feed pigs. And he just started screaming, “THIS HAS GOT TO STOP!”
RM He probably bought them, though.
GI I think he did.
RM It even reaches a point where the dollar numbers don’t mean anything. The way I carry my money, you probably do the same—I mean, look. Mapplethorpe pulls a mash of currency from his pocket. It’s not that I don’t have money, I keep all twenties in here, but it doesn’t mean anything.
GI I’m wearing my wallet for the first time in weeks … but I’m always finding twenties and tens stuck in pockets …
RM Everybody kicks and screams and then ends up buying a $400 pair of pants.
GI It’s so crazy. If we refused to buy it, it wouldn’t happen.
RM And when things break, it’s simpler to just get a new one. I’m trying to have a washing machine repaired, we had four appointments. They just don’t show up. That’s the wrong attitude … my TV doesn’t work. I feel like, the watch battery goes dead, it’s easier to buy a new watch.
GI Everything in my house is broken. Like, over and over again. The only thing I’ll take in for repair is the typewriter. But anything else … people say, Well, just bring it back to the store. They don’t know what that’s like for me. Because just getting to the store to buy the thing felt like crawling uphill … and I think everybody’s living this way now.
RM I know … I’m as guilty—we’re all guilty of consumption.
GI As long as money’s coming in, it’s cheaper to pay more for nothing.
RM It’s a terrible attitude that developed in America, really. Now it goes over to the Europeans, it’s catching on quick. It’s not healthy.
RM What happened to the art world? That is a phenomenon not to be believed.
GI It’s very strange, because I tried to get out of it this year, and I got turned around. For career reasons, I guess. But it always reminded me, this time of year always reminds me of that Doris Lessing novel, Briefing for a Descent into Hell… . The first month especially, people just flagellating themselves into a state of frenzy over nothing.
RM You know what I find irritating is, nobody will ever review my shows in the context of the art magazines. The last show I did at Miller, they take a few months before they get to review them, but they never review my shows. And it’s not that they don’t get press, because I had the cover of Artforum, right? But I have not been reviewed at all for the last four shows in New York. Did you see the show I did of black men at Miller’s a while ago?—it seemed like a perfect show for somebody to review as a show. Never, never, nothing. Did you see the show of non-photographic pieces, the mirrors and stuff?
RM At Robert Miller, before he moved.
GI Robert, I’m trying to remember.
RM Stars and triangles and mirrors and colored glass. No photographs at all. Three shows ago.
GI There was one show I missed, it must have been that one.
RM Why do people avoid reviewing my work in the context of art? They review it in other situations; it doesn’t fit in, or what?
GI I don’t know, because the first year that I was at the Voice, I did more photography shows than anything else. And they were always getting upset and saying, “It’s too much photography.”
RM I forget that it’s photography. I don’t see it in the context of photography, because of the size and scale of what I’ve done—I always feel like, you know, Cindy Sherman never had a problem.
GI That’s true.
RM It was perfect for people to write about. She made it very easy for journalists to take it and go with it. I think when things get complicated, people avoid them.
GI Well, maybe they can only understand a certain kind of dramaturgy. Cindy Sherman’s project is so much about that—or was, anyway, until maybe this last show. It’s a blatant way to be dramatic.
RM It’s very depressing to do a show, you only have a New York show every three years, two and a half years, to put that much effort in, and not have it reviewed by the legitimate press. But don’t you think the problem with art today is that it’s lost its elitist element—too many people, the audience is too big, the mass becomes a mass commodity as opposed to something more refined—or not?
GI I don’t know, Robert. All it takes for me to get into a really black mood about the whole thing—
RM —which I’m trying to get you into.
GI I usually think it’s better that collectors buy art than …
RM Pork bellies?
GI Yeah, something. Maybe not, though. I mean, why should name deleted be rich? That’s what I’d like to know. I mean, he was bellowing in my face at that stupid Gilbert and George thing, “You don’t know anything, don’t pretend to be a friend of mine, don’t pretend to like me—” I wasn’t pretending any such thing, I said hello to him because he was standing this close—which is only polite, even if you can’t stand somebody. And he screams, “Don’t say hello to me, you’re nothing—” he actually said, “You’re nothing but a queen!” I had never seen a more raving queen than him, at that moment … and at a Gilbert and George party, that was the irony. I wish he’d just disappear.
RM It should happen to a number of other people as well. I don’t care what somebody does to me. Again, what’s important is their development as people.
GI I never cared too much. They can have all the money they want, all the fame, all of that. But it’s never just that. They want idolatry from people who simply don’t like what they do, or don’t like them. They can’t stand the slightest criticism.
RM A great advantage to being a photographer—with what I do, there are certain preliminaries which sort of force me—I mean, it’s a point that when something finally comes together, I’ve got to take a picture. If you’re a writer, and you’ve got that typewriter …
GI You could just let it go forever. Artists generally have more physical things that they can do, which are probably a lot more pleasurable than sitting down at a typewriter. There’s not a whole lot of sensation involved in typing. It’s really boring. And you have to be alone when you’re writing, too. I don’t know anyone who can write with someone else there.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
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