The portrait, central to Robert Mapplethorpe’s work, began with his earliest Polaroids in 1970. With a rising market for fine art photography and growing punk and gay cultures, Mapplethorpe, though trained in painting and sculpture, devoted himself to the photographic medium and particularly in black-and-white. More than a faithful presentation of physical description, Mapplethorpe’s use of the photographic image extended beyond, revealing profundities of the “human original.”
The self-portraits of the 1980s carry with them the weight of the AIDS crisis, the artist’s first trip to the hospital in 1982 accelerating his creative efforts. With the HIV virus unidentified (the antibody test would not be available until 1985), Mapplethorpe lived in denial until his diagnoses in September of 1986. With the first possible treatment for AIDS unavailable until March of 1987, Mapplethorpe came to terms with his declining health by way of his self-portraits during these last four years of his life.
In a play on personal identity, Mapplethorpe presented varied personas in these portraits. This 1986 example showing him dressed in a tuxedo, with brows furrowed and gaze piercing through the lens. Though positioned squarely before the camera, the artist tilts his head for a three-quarter view, the cascading contours of his face pronounced by the gaunt black background. Carefully lit, the shawl collared jacket glints, a stateliness in his dress and disposition contrary to many of his other personas. Mapplethorpe constructs himself in front of the camera as a conservatively groomed gentleman, asking first how he conceives himself for public presentation, second, how he relates to the camera as the subject, and third, the perception of the audience.
“It is possible to interpret all Mapplethorpe’s photographs as portraits, and indeed we probably should, so intense is his exploration of the carefully-posed object or person in front of the lens” (R. Gibson, Mapplethorpe Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, London, 1988, p. 7).
Mapplethorpe’s self-portraits are held in public and private collections, notably at the of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Getty Research Institute, which contains the artist’s personal archive.