It wasn’t a leatherman, a naked man, or a man in a polyester suit that was the subject Robert Mapplethorpe’s first photograph — it was his oldest sister Nancy posing elegantly outside the family home in Floral Park, New York. Many more women would sit for Mapplethorpe — a subject that would not be his most infamous but arguably the most enduring of his career.
Mapplethorpe’s exceptional self-portraits, statue-like male nudes, erotic orchids, and the notorious ‘X Portfolio’ are what garner much of the art world’s attention but they aren’t the whole Mapplethorpe photographic story. That story must include women.
Mapplethorpe was a boy when he took those pictures of his sister, then soon after he put down the camera. At just 16 years of age he went to study fine arts at the Pratt Institute, focussing on drawing, painting, collage, and various drugs. A self-confessed art snob, he believed photography to be a lesser art form.
Yet the boy who dismissed photography would become the man who helped transform it from art’s late arrival to the respected medium it is today. Mapplethorpe’s photographs are among the most recognised and wanted in the art world, featuring some of the most talented and commanding women of his era.
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