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.
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).