Thalidomide Dream: Dureau, Mapplethorpe, Witkin

Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography has always been intellectually challenging for those without the requisite artistic eye. Along with the photographic works of Joel-Peter Witkin and George Dureau, uninformed viewers tend to only see the raw sexuality their images possess.

Robert and I once visited photographer George Dureau down in New Orleans in the autumn of 1982, George was a generous host. We met a few of his amputated models, while there. One of them, I became particularly friendly with. George introduced him as ‘Wang’, who’s right leg had been amputated above the knee. George photographed Wang and I in a casual setting together, a portrait of the two of us. We are standing side by side, outside on the second floor porch of his southern antebellum home, on a sunny afternoon. While we were in New Orleans, George was set to have an exhibition of his paintings at one of the local art galleries there. His figurative paintings consisted of satyrs, centaurs, and winged angels. Oftentimes, his models served as inspiration for these striking paintings. From what I surmised, Dureau considered himself more of a painter than a photographer. It seemed that way to Robert also. Who, truth be told, thought very little of George’s attempt at painting. It seemed George viewed his photography as supplemental to his career, as a painter. Robert thought George’s paintings were a waste of time. George began photographing black men several years before Robert considered the idea. The matter is factual. Although, George’s black male models mostly featured truncated limbs. Nevertheless, there was a perfect symbiosis between their works as fellow photographers. Robert thought very highly of George Dureau as a photographer, and possibly, even as a mentor.

Many Joel-Peter Witkin photographs hung on the walls of our Manhattan apartment. Most notably ‘KISS, (1982)’ Robert’s unconstrained passion for the works of Witkin and Dureau was infectious, championing their works at every opportunity. He was more than happy to share in his enthusiasm for their works, subtly encouraging other art buyers along the way to collect their art. Richard Gere, upon visiting our apartment late one evening, accompanied by his then girlfriend artist Sylvia Martins, expressed his horror when he first saw the Joel-Peter Witkin photographs hanging on the walls of our apartment, accusing Robert of using art as a shock tactic. He was very vocal about his disapproval, only to find out shortly thereafter, he had began to collect Witkin’s work himself.

At times, the dark content of these photographs makes for uneasy viewing. Certainly, there is a degree of sophistication required of the collector in order to process the fine complexities of the photographs sprung from the minds of Dureau, Mapplethorpe and Witkin. As a young artist, Robert expressed an interest in oddities, specifically, Coney Island sideshow freaks. This influence would prove to be an important part of his artistic growth, as a photographer, leaving an impact on his art. The forbidden exoticism of their subject matter, is glaringly clear. Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs lean heavily upon the works of Dureau and Witkin, without being derivative. Both Joel-Peter Witkin and George Dureau, began using the camera as an artistic outlet before Mapplethorpe, born in 1946, Dureau 1930, Witkin, 1939. Mapplethorpe being the youngest, somewhat more renowned of the triumvirate. Dureau and Witkin’s works were bold, their high sensibilities spoke to Mapplethorpe, and informed his photographic output over the years.

Taking a look at these photographs, it is not unusual for the onlooker to do a double take, Joel-Peter Witkin’s images especially, have a whiplash affect upon the viewer. They produce a delayed reaction sometimes, a ‘did I just see that?’ moment. The sublime decadence of these works is the narrative hook that draws the viewers in. There is an other worldly majesty in these photographs. Something is alien about the subject matter presented in the works of Joel-Peter Witkin. Although, it is the beautiful composition that seduces the viewer, that brings the photographs back down to earth. It’s what makes their appearance palatable, for museum exhibitions, around the world.

The extreme reactions these images sometimes produce in art lovers, is a good thing. I envision Dureau, Mapplethorpe, and Witkin, as holy clerics. Crafting their works with monk like focus, lost in their creations. Blurring the real world around them, creating their own realities. These photographs are constructed to arrest the eye. They are designed as inanimate objects, like sculpture, through the photographers lenses. The classical form, as seen through their eyes. Causes the viewer to revisit the photographs time and time again. Soon, the vulgarity of the image dissipates, becomes tame and beautiful. This is why these pictures matter. They do several things simultaneously. The initial punch is deflected. The shock gives way to awe. The photographs are transformed into things of beauty. Bringing to mind Jean Cocteau’s beautifully shot black and white, classic film, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1946).

Deciphering Mapplethorpe and Dureau in relationship to photographing black men is a challenge. To say that George Dureau began to photograph black men first is unfair to Mapplethorpe, black men have been a part of his formula since the beginning of his career as a photographer. There is an unconscious racist lust in their images of black men, framed in the name of ‘high art’. Many slave masters lusted after the black slaves they owned, male and female. With the smell of pungent negro sweat wafting through the air. Their nostrils, involuntarily flaring with uncontrollable want. From the scent, emitted from the glands of the musky male captives. Tolling away, day by day, in the hot cotton fields, beneath the burning sun. Artistically pulled off, Dureau and Mapplethorpe’s shared subject matter follow in the same tradition as Joel-Peter Witkin’s freak show. Once past the initial shock, the models dark skin transforms into black ivory. Again, lulling the viewer into a false sense of security. Oblivious to the weight carried by the punch of a Dureau or Mapplethorpe photograph. Until the next fresh-eyed victim comes along.

Robert’s photographs have a lush rich quality. George’s photographs deliver a flat black matte effect. Joel-Peter’s work is romantically baroque. Robert especially admired the macabre photographs of Witkin. They played into his dark sense of the lurid, the beauty in ugliness, beauty in decay. The skin tones in George’s work have a dullness about them. Giving the image a gray grainy texture. While the skin of Robert’s sitter’s glow by comparison. The minimal studio lighting deployed in Robert’s work bounces off the models skin. George Dureau’s usage of light was not unlike the minimalistic quality employed by Robert Mapplethorpe in his own studio work. Though instead, George uses natural light found in the spacious parlor of his home, which doubles as his studio. Primarily, Robert’s work is confined to indoors. In his small, narrow, photography studio set up at 24 Bond Street, in New York. This was the difference, Robert’s lighting comes off as urbane and slick, Dureau’s lighting, on the other hand, is laid back and bucolic. Both possess the same cool, creating equally definitive styles.

One photograph of Witkin’s, ‘Choice of Outfits for the Agonies of Mary’, 1984. Harkens back to Mapplethorpe’s time spent documenting sadomasochism in photography during the 1970s. In this picture, we see the accoutrements, or toys, used by the practitioners of S&M, adorning the backdrop. Whips, a paddle, phalluses, kinky boots, and other devices meant for pleasurable torture are displayed. We also see the dominatrix front and center. This dark arrangement, is assembled like a paper doll cut out book, to hilarious effect. Witkin’s ethereal works occupied Robert’s imagination, their fantastical content left an impression in his thoughts. Joel-Peter’s,’Manuel Osorio’, 1982, is after Francisco de Goya’s ‘Red Boy’ or, (Don Manuel Osorio De Zuniga, 1800) is a peek into the abyss of Goya’s mind, reimagined through the photographic eye of Witkin. In this revisited menagerie, we see a monkey takes the place of the child model. The cage and the birds are there. Also, a mummified dead cat sits perched amongst the sordid denizens of this noir reinterpretation, of one of Goya’s most famous paintings. These figures appear as sacred monsters. Recapturing, the Spanish romantic atmosphere Goya’s paintings, are so well known for today.

One example of Joel-Peter Witkin’s stature in popular culture is when his photograph titled, SANITARIUM, 1983 was brought to life through an installation by Alexander McQueen (1969-2010) for his, spring-summer, (2001) fashion show, ‘VOSS’. I recently saw this in a documentary film about the late fashion designer as I sat on a plane flying to Porto, Portugal. I was struck by the designers inclusion of Witkin’s, brought to life photograph. As a quasi-alter piece central, in part of the whole show. There, front and center stage of McQueen’s catwalk. Witkins work had a firm influence on the young British designer. Sending double amputee Aimee Mullins down the runway wearing a pair of hand-carved wooden prosthetic legs, is another example of the impact Witkin’s art had on McQueen. Joel-Peter’s photographs inspired the outré aesthetic of the troubled couturier. Who, at the pinnacle of his success, committed suicide.

Of the trinity, Mapplethorpe’s photographs are most ambitious, encompassing the totality of his legend. Robert calculated his existence to succeed. He knew what he was after the whole time, clarity, not a smokescreen. There is a pure transparency in his art, it does not conceal itself behind smoke and mirrors. Games of dress up or the sexual fetishism of Dureau and Witkins’ sideshows. Well, maybe. There is Mapplethorpe’s photograph of JOE, NYC (1978) clad head to foot in a rubber suit, which echoes Witkin’s manner of style. But again, this is not purely ‘dress-up’ for a photographic shoot. This is about a particular lifestyle. And then, there’s Mapplethorpe’s usage of cropping his models. Maybe he is subconsciously figuring out Dureau’s method of form, in the abstract. Robert’s decapitation of heads in his photographs, in particular. Personally speaking, Robert’s pictures of me sans head, two in fact. JACK, Fire Island, 1982 and BLACKJACK, 1982 (penis and gun). I preferred not to have my face included in the photograph. In most cases, this is the model’s choice. Although, some models insisted their faces be included in the shots. Which Robert Mapplethorpe would always have preferred. Unless he is shooting for photographic poetic realism. Mapplethorpe’s synergistic book project with body builder/performance artist, Lisa Lyon, ‘LADY LISA LYON’, 1982. Is a collaboration featuring the titular heroine, dressing up and down. Shot in various locations across America and Europe, their collaborative exploit, is a whirlwind tour of one woman’s anatomy.

Lisa Lyon is a Joel-Peter Witkin subject too. His reinterpretation of Ms. Lyon posed as HERCULES, 1983, is cleverly thought out. Witkin’s emasculated rendition is immaculate, in it’s conception. Lisa Lyon’s depiction, holds it’s own as the divine hero. Who’s hyper masculinity is purposely flawed, subverted, by the presence of Lisa’s own breasts. Witkin, also photographed her as the Grecian god, CRONOS, 1983. Here, we have the performance artist unadorned, her chiseled perfection taking center stage. This photograph has no frills, only Lyon’s immaculateness. Witkin’s take on Lisa Lyon is not unlike Mapplethorpe’s, both photographers certainly respect her female muscularity. Her feline domination, notwithstanding. Lends a velvet gloved presence to the proceedings, before the camera. Lisa Lyon is an oddity. Being the first woman modern day body builder using performance art as a platform to showcase her wares. Robert Mapplethorpe viewed Lisa as a work of art. Her anatomy is sliced and diced along the way, chopped up, in some of Mapplethorpe’s photographs of Ms. Lyon. Not unlike echoing the amputated limbs in Witkin’s and George Dureau’s own photographic orchestrations. That spills directly over, from their own work.

These works are not as irreligious as some may like you to believe. There is a strong artistic spirituality connecting the three photographers. Art can be seen as their religion. Mapplethorpe’s work is strongly attached to his catholicism and it’s self-disciplines. Between George Dureau’s and Joel-Peter Witkin’s amputees, dwarfs, hermaphrodites, severed heads, and dead body’s, stemmed a brotherhood, a shared work ethic. The relative artistic vision viewed through the same though distinct, camera lens, ties it all together. Having been the subject of both Dureau and Mapplethorpe. The writer of this piece identifies, feels a kinship with the other models that have sat before their lenses. Something makes me as they are, odd. There is something a little off center about me. My lifestyle, my choice of friends. The way I choose to move through life, being a poet. My soul is attached to theirs. Mine is a sideshow of sorts too, unconventional. Having Robert Mapplethorpe as a boyfriend, was not an easy task.

Robert Mapplethorpe’s vision has a deft sophistication not found in the oeuvres of Joel- Peter Witkin or George Dureau. In his photographs of flowers, Mapplethorpe steps out from the form that binds the associative dialogue between the photographers, and their dark underbelly aesthetic.

In the pantheon of modern day photographers these three hold a special place. Ryan McGinley is the direct off spring and the heir to their legacy. He cut his teeth in the darkroom before finding success as a digital modern day photographer. With edge cutting sensibilities and a body of work that brought him to notice, shooting him into fame. There is something about the line of connection these photographers share with McGinley. There’s an underlying strength of composition and depth of feeling for the models. They seem to have personal relationships or friendships with each subject. McGinley has managed to distill and focus this energy into commercial profitability. The tone of his photographs contains the same otherworldly edge that slips past the viewer into fine art. The commercial viability of Ryan McGinley’s work, is something never achieved by the three seasoned masters, Witkin, Mapplethorpe, and Dureau. All who Ryan McGinley studied in art school, before embarking on his own career path.

Sam Wagstaff, the godfather/patron saint, of modern day photography, would have loved the work of photographer Ryan McGinley. Sam, shined the spotlight on photography as an art form. That, up until then, had not been viewed as an art form. Photography, once called the “red headed step-child” of the art world, was ushered into the realm of fine art, with the help of Wagstaff. Without Sam Wagstaff’s vision and scope, we probably would not be having this conversation today. His was a heart felt passion that lead photography collecting out of the darkroom and into the limelight. His collecting was no gaudy display of wealth, it has no pretensions. His photography collection remains the pinnacle, the golden standard, in the world of photography. It now lies in the hands of the J. Paul Getty Museum, in Los Angeles.

Robert Mapplethorpe was a collector of photography too. It was Robert who encouraged Sam to start collecting pictures. Also, according to Patti Smith, when the three of them would go thrifting for photographs in old antique shops, second hand stores, and the flea markets, Robert would pick through a box of old photographs to find the perfect one. Sam, on the other hand, would simply buy the whole box. Much to Robert’s annoyance.

However, in the end. The classical precision enacted in the execution of form unites Dureau, Mapplethorpe, and Witkin. Their works are individually powerful, they stand on their own as photographic masterpieces. There is something brave about these images. Photographs close to the edge, monstrous and cruel, is the work of these heroes of photography.