Alone with Mapplethorpe

Ahead of Robert Mapplethorpe: the perfect medium, a major survey of Mapplethorpe’s arresting images at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, VAULT spoke with two of the late artist’s most prominent sitters to find out what being around one of America’s most seminal photographers – and the subject of its high - gear culture wars – actually felt like.

By Laura Bannister OCT 2017

Before Robert Mapplethorpe took someone’s picture – say, Isabella Rosellini, hair slicked and hands cusped around her face, or Cindy Sherman in the guise of a nursing Madonna, the nipples on her fake breasts resembling wet plasticine, or the exotic dancer and porn star Thomas Williams, head bent into his knees like a classical sculpture, his sculpted, perfectly proportioned body reminiscent of da Vinci’s The Vitruvian Man, or an anonymous, headless figure, penis extending from a polyester suit, or a pinkie shoved into a urethra – he’d spend a brief time hanging out with them. According to the artist and writer Jack Walls – Mapplethorpe’s last boyfriend and close collaborator – some sitters could be extremely uptight upon arriving at his downtown studio. Mapplethorpe did his best to ease any tension. He’d sit around with subjects, get acquainted, and proffer a drink or two.

“I wasn’t necessarily there while he was taking the pictures,” says Walls. “If I was there in the studio while he was shooting, I’d normally be off somewhere doing something else ... passing through only if he needed something. This was early on before he was becoming more successful and began to hire assistants. Robert’s shoots never lasted that long, maybe an hour. If he took more than six rolls of film [it] was a lot in those days. The key to his whole thing was this: he approached a flower like he would a cock.”

“You’d go in, he’d offer you a beer or a glass of wine, the regular line of coke,” recalls Robert Sherman, .. Subscribe to read this article in full

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