Remembering Robert Mapplethorpe

I thought, in acknowledgement of it being World AIDS Day on 1st December and with the recent success of Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids, it might be interesting for readers of my blog to have the chance to revisit my memories of the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

In 1984, Quartet’s New York office was more and more on the watch for likely books emanating from local contributors. Their recent discovery was Robert Mapplethorpe, who was attracting attention not only for his outstanding talent but also because of some of the subjects he chose to photograph. He was already revered and loathed in equal measure. Everyone agreed, however, that with his unique but disturbing style he ranked among the best photographers of his generation. He pushed degeneracy to extremes and stretched the boundaries of homoerotic imagery to a level of debauchery that was wilful, shocking and unashamedly revolting.

I met Mapplethorpe in his studio-cum-apartment in the Bowery. With Quartet having become internationally known for publishing plush photographic books, I had it in mind that he could be a natural addition to the list. He was oddly dressed in leather gear, with such fetishistic sex-aids as dildos, chains and whips strewn around his living area. The walls were covered with amazing photographs of young men and women in bizarre but powerful poses. The atmosphere was disturbing and I felt slightly uncomfortable until he led me into an adjoining room to show me some of his exquisite photographs of flowers. By these I was totally enchanted, affected by their beauty and the magic they seemed to generate. There was no doubting that they were masterworks and their creator a genius. I began to warm to him and to feel a growing optimism about the chances of landing him as a Quartet author. He said that he had photographed Rebecca Fraser – who he knew worked at Quartet – when she was in New York, and offered me a signed print. Thus the meeting ended on a positive note as we agreed to think about the most suitable terms for a future collaboration.

After this first encounter I was feeling quite excited about having his name on the list of famous photographers we published. On my next trip to New York, a couple of months later, I went to see him in the Bowery again. His place was still as cluttered as before with sexual contraptions of every imaginable kind, some of them with sado-masochistic connotations. This time I felt distinctly uncomfortable and had to struggle to maintain an appearance of relaxed unconcern. Robert was as outrageously dressed as usual, all in black leather, and although he lacked a whip he seemed as threatening as if he had one.

We exchanged pleasantries and then went straight to the heart of the matter. He would love to be published by Quartet, he said, but he would have to insist on a large advance against royalties and total editorial control over what appeared in the book. The size of the advance he specified would have been difficult for Quartet to raise, but not impossible; his second demand was another matter. Total control would have been unacceptable under any conditions. My instincts told me that his choice of some of his photographs was likely to be so reprehensible as to make any collaboration between us untenable.

When he had to leave the room to take an urgent phone call, I wandered into another room that he used to exhibit some of his latest work. There I was brought to a standstill by a series of photographs of fist-fucking so shocking that I experienced a surge of physical nausea. I darted back to where I had been sitting when he went to answer the phone and tried to regain my composure. When he came back I said I would consider the terms he suggested and made my exit without further ado.

I never saw him again, nor did Quartet ever publish any book of his. Robert Mapplethorpe died of the ravages of AIDS a few years later, hailed as one of the most accomplished photographers of his time. His fist-fucking photographs were later exhibited in New York amid a barrage of controversy. Today there are collectors worldwide of his photographs, which sell at auction for great sums of money.

I remember those more innocent times in New York with great affection, before the horrific onslaught of AIDS destroyed so many talented and creative men. I still covet my signed Robert Mapplethorpe print as a souvenir of my two meetings with him. He was indeed a photographer’s photographer.

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