21/8/12 – Self Portriat Resonates the Life and Death of Robert Mapplethorpe
Over the past few weeks I have developed an interest for self portraiture and black & white photography. In one of my class tutorials I have discovered the works of Robert Mapplethorpe whose work has featured a reference to death and the skull. According to John Ingledew, Robert Mapplethorpe has explored self portraiture in a creative format and the skull may resonate the artist’s own interpretations of death or mortality.
Ingledew also claims that there are only three distinguishable subjects within the actual photograph, Mapplethorpe himself, his hand and the skull that appears to be placed on top of a wooden walking stick. The direction of the light and the texture resembles a similar appearance to a walking stick although the image does not provide one specific explanation.
IngleDew quotes “Robert Mapplethorpe shows himself in a 1988 self portrait withered and dying fr0m AIDS. He grasps a cane topped with a small skull. It is one of the photographs in which every part is not fiercely defined by sharp focus. In stark, silvery black and white, the shiny detail of the skull is chillingly juxtaposed with Mapplethorpe’s haunted face – floating out of focus , receding into darkness” (Ingledew, 2005)
In regards to Ingledew’s argument, Mapplethorpe’s previous photographs are quite sensual and erotic that provide a strong emphasis on the human form. In the self portrait however, the artist’s body disappears from the surface of the image that creates quite an unusual composition between the metallic skull and Mapplethorpe’s face. The viewer is confronted with Mapplethorpe’s lifeless expressions that may also provide a sense of isolation and deterioration.
The self portrait also features vivid light, tone and composition that illuminates the skull on the very top of the walking stick. The skull becomes one of the main focal points within the image that is juxtaposed with the artist’s hand and the actual walking stick itself. In relation to the self portrait is the skull an emblem of death and mortality?The composition between Mapplethorpe and the skull may encourage the viewer to speculate life and death in general. One may argue that the skull features far more facial expressions than the artist who may reflect a close connection with death. Mapplethorpe’s self portrait is a powerful image that may document the ‘presence’ and the ‘absence’ of the artist.
According to Leland Poague, Susan Sontag also theorizes the “presence and the absence” in photography that may resonate a particular moment in the past or a moment in time. A photograph may provide the ability to remember certain aspects of a person’s life although the photograph also invites one to acknowledge the absence of a close friend or a family member.
Poague also mentions Freud’s interpretations of the conscience and how the mind processes a certain loss or an absence “In Freudian terms, absence or loss leads to a doubling; the lost object is not let go of but represented, a representation that is subsequently incorporated, as conscience” (Poague, 2000) In response to Pogue’s arguments, the photograph could be considered as a form of duplication that records a person’s physical existence. A photograph may trigger the viewer’s own memory or perception of the subjects within the actual photograph itself.
Poague also quotes “We can say with a fascination with photography is already a fascination with death, a way of taking it bit by bit as if photography was a form of mourning” (Poague, 2000) One could argue that photography is used to remember and celebrate a person’s life, at the same time photography can also provide the ability to grief over the loss of a loved one. I suppose photography is a subjective medium that resonates a different experience and interpretation from each person. Not every person will have the same response to a particualr image or photograph and the representation itself has a power to create a range of different emotions.
In Mapplethorpe’s portrait may document the artist’s spirit or entity that also reflects a ‘presence and an absence’ within the photograph. John Claridge quotes “With portraits it’s always the spirit that’s captured in the picture not the technical expertise” (Claridge, 2000) The self portrait is a very striking image that successfully captures the life and the death of Robert Mapplethorpe who will continue to influence contemporary art within the 21st century.
Ingledew, John, Photography (London: Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, 2005 ) p.39
Poague, Leland, Susan Sontag: An Annotated Bibliography 1948-1992 (New York: Garland Publishing Inc, 2000) p.li – liii
John Claridge in Portraits: Developing Style in Creative Photography (Switzerland: Rotovison, 2000) p.51