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AutoportraitReview - Autoportrait
by Robert Mapplethorpe
Arena Editions, 2001
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Nov 17th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 46)

These Polaroid black and white photographs explore Robert Mapplethorpe's sexual life. Many of them feature him naked, or wearing sexual apparatus; cock rings, thin leather rope he ties around himself, a leather hood, nipple-clamps, a dog collar, and black leather gloves. Some feature him just naked, or in jeans, others focus on body parts; his hand, legs, head, penis, or feet. Nearly all were taken in 1972 and 1973, in his late twenties - a long time before the age of AIDS and Mapplethorpe's death in 1989.

The introduction by Richard D. Marshall mentions some of the earlier artists who have featured and explored their relation to their own bodies in their own. Skeptics might wonder whether this is really art, and might just condemn it as sleaze. After all, it's possible to see plenty of people's sexually explicit photographs of themselves in contact magazines, or more recently, images taken with digital cameras available on the Internet. Furthermore, these Polaroids are not aesthetically beautiful in the way that many of Mapplethorpe's better known photographs are. Some are not in focus, or are slightly blurred because he was moving. The grain of the images is coarse, and there is not much contrast.

These images are spontaneous, since they were taken either with a timer or a remote shutter-release control. Even though some might be construed as lighthearted - four feature Mapplethorpe sticking out his tongue - most have a self-conscious seriousness to them. There's no joy of sex here, but rather an intense self-scrutiny, and a sense of solitude that may make us wonder what sexuality means for him. He is not trying to attract potential partners, and judging from these images, he is mainly interested in looking at himself. It's narcissistic and if Mapplethorpe had published this work in his lifetime, it would have been self-indulgent.

These pictures probably would not have been published if Mapplethorpe hadn't become famous for his other work. Yet, considering these pictures as a collection, there's an intensity to them that's impressive. It's as if his narcissism is as much his topic as his sexuality, and as if he is documenting how his sexuality is dominating his identity. He seems to take pleasure in the extremity of the images, in ways foreshadowing his later notorious photographs. But while those pictures have an abstract beauty -- sometimes it takes a little while to work out what is depicted in them -- these Polaroids are more straightforward. Mapplethorpe may give more of himself away in these images than he does in most of the rest of his work. His work here from the early seventies conveys a sense of great isolation.

© 2001 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life. He is available to give talks on many philosophical or controversial issues in mental health.


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