THROUGH THE LENS

Ahead of a new ex­hi­bi­tion cel­e­brat­ing the work of renowned vis­ual artist Robert Map­plethorpe, his brother Ed­ward Map­plethorpe re­flects on their re­la­tion­ship and work­ing along­side the famed photographer in his stu­dio.

VOGUE Australia - - Contents -

Ahead of a new ex­hi­bi­tion cel­e­brat­ing the work of Robert Map­plethorpe, his brother re­flects on their re­la­tion­ship and work­ing along­side the famed photographer in his stu­dio.

In the early hours of March 9, 1989, the phone rang in my Bos­ton ho­tel room. On the other end a voice qui­etly in­formed me that my brother Robert had died just a few mo­ments ear­lier in the hos­pi­tal across the street. Hav­ing spent the pre­vi­ous days and nights at his bed­side, the news came as lit­tle sur­prise to me, but the shock I sud­denly felt that Robert was re­ally gone was ex­tremely up­set­ting. The older brother that I grew to love and re­spect was now gone from my life. It has been 28 years since Robert’s pass­ing and much has hap­pened, but time has not erased any of my vivid mem­o­ries of our time to­gether. From my ear­li­est rec­ol­lec­tions as a small boy, to the in­ter­ven­ing years as a young man up to my present-day re­flec­tions, th­ese rem­i­nis­cences are fre­quent and en­able Robert to have an on­go­ing pres­ence in my life.

Robert and I grew up in a small sub­urb of Queens, New York. Our par­ents, Joan and Harry, were typ­i­cal of their gen­er­a­tion: Harry was part of the white-col­lar work­ing class in his ca­pac­ity as an elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer at Un­der­writ­ers Lab­o­ra­to­ries; Joan stayed home to raise their six chil­dren. Robert was the third child, while I led the rear as the youngest to be born into the fam­ily 14 years later.

With such a large age gap be­tween us, Robert was out of the house be­fore we could es­tab­lish a for­ma­tive bond, but nev­er­the­less he would soon be­come a fig­ure of ex­treme fas­ci­na­tion as I be­gan to un­der­stand and de­fine my own place in the world.

There are only a hand­ful of times that I re­call Robert com­ing home to visit dur­ing my early years, but each oc­ca­sion filled me with great ex­cite­ment in­ter­min­gled with a smat­ter­ing of anx­i­ety. The un­easi­ness came from know­ing that Robert and my fa­ther were typ­i­cally at great odds with each other. But by putting this knowl­edge aside, which wasn’t easy for me, I would be over­whelmed with de­light by the sight of Robert, who so epit­o­mised the coun­ter­cul­ture gen­er­a­tion idea of ‘cool’ as he strode up the city block to­wards our home. And when those times in­cluded Patti Smith, you can eas­ily imag­ine the sense of awe that was writ­ten all over this young boy’s face. Th­ese vis­its spanned the late 1960s and very early 1970s, pre­dat­ing each of their even­tual suc­cesses, but even then I knew I was in the pres­ence of great cre­ative en­er­gies. Their in­flu­ence in­spired me to ques­tion the di­rec­tion of my own fu­ture path.

It would be a decade later that I be­gan work­ing with Robert in his Bond Street loft, in 1982. At the time I was a rather naive 22-year-old who had just com­pleted a rig­or­ous un­der­grad­u­ate pro­gram in pho­tog­ra­phy, so Robert in­vited me to pay him a visit. I would later find out that the in­vi­ta­tion had been ex­tended through the urg­ing of our mother, who was con­cerned about the lack of job prospects for me in the pho­tog­ra­phy field. Some­what re­luc­tantly, Robert of­fered me an as­sis­tant po­si­tion in his stu­dio and I started the very next day. From the be­gin­ning it was made very clear to me that I was not to be a link back to our fam­ily. What­ever early con­flicts he had with my fa­ther were never re­solved and now that he was liv­ing his life fully as a gay man and an artist he was not go­ing to be hin­dered in any way. Sadly, he would die with­out ever hav­ing the op­por­tu­nity to ex­plain his life­style or his life’s re­wards to the rest of my fam­ily, but on this day his procla­ma­tion was to be re­spected if I were to step into his world. I did and never spoke a word about Robert’s pri­vate life to my par­ents un­til 1988 when he ac­cepted he was dy­ing of AIDS.

As the days and months passed Robert and I de­vel­oped a real kin­ship with each other. Sud­denly he was proudly in­tro­duc­ing me as his younger brother, which was his way of ex­press­ing his pleasure at hav­ing a blood brother who ac­cepted him for the per­son he had be­come. By this time the stu­dio staff in­cluded a man­ager and a full-time dark­room prin­ter, so my pri­mary re­spon­si­bil­ity was to be at Robert’s side in the stu­dio and as­sist in the pic­ture-tak­ing process. Hav­ing had more train­ing in stu­dio light­ing than Robert, I en­cour­aged him to in­vest in bet­ter equip­ment and to ex­per­i­ment with more elab­o­rate set-ups. It was an ex­cit­ing time work­ing to­gether, ex­plor­ing th­ese new pho­to­graphic pos­si­bil­i­ties. As part of his process we tested most of­ten on flow­ers and would later ap­ply the tech­niques per­fected at this time to his por­trai­ture.

IT WAS MADE VERY CLEAR TO ME THAT I WAS NOT TO BE A LINK BACK TO OUR FAM­ILY

My fond­est mem­o­ries from this pe­riod were of be­ing to­gether after a long hard day of work in the stu­dio, when I would stay be­hind to keep Robert com­pany after the oth­ers had left for the day. We would have a smoke and re­view the re­sults of our labour, gig­gling at the won­der of his prints com­pared to those of other pho­tog­ra­phers. At th­ese mo­ments he was not my boss nor was he my brother; he was my friend, some­one who would put side his ego to ex­pose a vul­ner­a­bil­ity not seen by many oth­ers. At times he would qui­etly ques­tion his tal­ent and abil­ity – some­thing that few artists would ever do aloud. But in th­ese mo­ments I as­sured him he was blessed with a unique vi­sion and sug­gested that some things just ‘are’ and must not be ques­tioned.

Dis­cord be­tween us be­gan to sur­face when it be­came ap­par­ent to him that I meant to pur­sue my own ca­reer in pho­tog­ra­phy. He never took any in­ter­est in see­ing what I was pro­duc­ing in my spare time and at one point strongly sug­gested I change my last name to Maxey, our mother’s maiden name, to which I promptly com­plied. As far as he was con­cerned there was only room for one Map­plethorpe photographer in the art world and he would hold that post all to him­self. This re­al­i­sa­tion prompted me to move to south­ern Cal­i­for­nia in 1984 to cre­ate a phys­i­cal and pro­fes­sional dis­tance be­tween the two of us. Once de­cided, to my sur­prise and dis­ap­point­ment, he quickly dis­re­garded me and we rarely spoke for the next sev­eral years.

This would all change when Robert be­came HIV pos­i­tive and turned to me for sup­port. At his be­hest I re­turned to the stu­dio in 1987 and again worked very closely with him and an­other as­sis­tant. By this time his vi­sion and tech­nique had been so per­fected that it left lit­tle room for any chance mis­takes as it had in the past. But for good or for worse the stu­dio pro­duced some of Robert’s most iconic im­ages of calla lilies, celebrity por­traits, black male im­agery and sculp­tures.

Even­tu­ally Robert would have great dif­fi­culty get­ting up from his chair to work, so we did what­ever we could to make him com­fort­able dur­ing por­trait ses­sions. With the later flower pic­tures we would do the set-up, light­ing and a Po­laroid test to show Robert for ap­proval. He might sug­gest some mi­nor ad­just­ments to be made but Robert would of­ten say: “You guys re­ally know how to take a Map­plethorpe.” It was a bit­ter­sweet time since it was so ex­hil­a­rat­ing to see his eyes sparkle at the sight of the new im­ages but trou­bling that he no longer had the strength to do them him­self.

I al­ways knew that the day Robert could no longer work would be the be­gin­ning of the end of his time on this earth. As he be­came weaker and weaker it was de­cided to take him to Bos­ton’s New Eng­land Dea­coness Hos­pi­tal, where a doc­tor was ad­min­is­ter­ing a new ex­per­i­men­tal drug that was hav­ing some suc­cess in the bat­tle against AIDS. Sadly, Robert was too weak to ever re­ceive that prom­ise of hope and he passed away just a few short days after his ar­rival at the hos­pi­tal. The day of his death I ran to his side and looked down at his life­less body, wish­ing I could re­write the script. De­spite my help­less­ness that day the one thing that would re­main con­stant is the story of a young boy who recog­nised a great tal­ent in his el­der brother and was given the unique op­por­tu­nity to be a part of his short but ex­tra­or­di­nary life. Robert Map­plethorpe: the per­fect medium is on at the Art Gallery of New South Wales from Oc­to­ber 28. Go to www.art­gallery.nsw.gov.au.

ROBERT MAP­PLETHORPE SELF-POR­TRAIT (1980).

TWOMENDANCING (1984).

PATTISMITH (1978).

ISABELLAROSSELLINI (1988).

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