|Robert Mapplethorpe - Self Portrait, 1975|
"The camera looks at me, I look at the camera, and everybody else is peripheral," Robert Mapplethorpe explains. Both Narcissus and Christ he proudly displays his body, reaching out his arm. He is still a young man, sensual, alive and probably high. As if floating or falling he is given no fixed location, becoming his own context. Mouth slightly open he teases the viewer, experimenting with the possibilities of the camera and the boundaries of the medium - quite literally, touching the opposite side of the frame.
Robert Mapplethorpe produced many self portraits throughout his life. With each, biographer Patricia Morrisroe explains, they "served to dramatize each distinct phase of his life." While he was later to die at age 42 as a result AIDS - one of his best works is a late self portrait, surrounded in black holding a walking stick topped with a skull - here is still in his twenties, highly sexual, a glittering career burgeoning before him. This is expertly captured in a private image of autoeroticism.
For all his obsession with S&M this image speaking solely of freedom. It is a simple yet life affirming photograph, direct and poignant.
In explaining his term punctum Roland Barthes, in his seminal and brilliant text Camera Lucida, is deeply captivated by the image:
"This boy with his arm outstretched, his radiant smile, though his beauty is in no way classical or academic, and though he is half out of the photograph, shifted to the extreme ... of the frame, incarnates a kind of blissful eroticism; the photograph leads me to distinguish the 'heavy' desire of pornography from the 'light' (good) desire of eroticism; after all, perhaps this is a question of 'luck': the photographer has caught the boy's hand (the boy is Mapplethorpe himself, I believe) at just the right degree of openness, the right density of abandonment: a few millimetres more or less and the divined body would no longer have been offered with benevolence (the pornographic body shows itself, it does not give itself, there is no generosity in it): the photographer has found the right moment, the kairos of desire."
Many images in Mapplethorpe's oeuvre are blatantly pornographic - he is widely and controversially credited with bringing art and the pornographic together. This generous image, however, offers so much by withholding - it asks questions instead of giving pat answers, it reeks of mystery even in its directness. Barthes is right, and states it much better than I could: it is an image of perfection, "just the right degree of openness, the right density of abandonment."
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Hill and Wang, 1980.
Patricia Morrisroe, Robert Mapplethorpe: A Biography, Macmillan, 1995.