Mapplethorpe Portraits

This weekend, I went to the San José Museum of Art for the exhibition on Robert Mapplethorpe portraits. Over the past couple years, I’ve enjoyed exhibitions of portraits from Richard Avedon (at Stanford and at SFMoMA) and Annie Leibovitz (at the Legion of Honor). The Mapplethorpe exhibit provided an interesting comparison.

Portrait exhibitions are always a little weird and tend to tread a fine line between being subject-dominated or creator-dominated. Leibovitz and Avedon are possibly the best examples of each case.

Leibovitz excels at taking pictures of famous people and channeling their charisma through her lens. I’m not convinced she’d be able to coax a good photo out of someone non-charismatic. Public reaction during her exhibition is also all about who the photo is of.

Avedon meanwhile is so distinctive that, whether his work is printed in a magazine or occupies an entire wall, it’s both instantly identifiable as his work and suggests that you should recognize the subject. At Avedon exhibitions, you can feel people relax when they come across a recognizable subject since the iconic (in a Roman Catholic way) nature of the photo becomes acceptable.

Mapplethorpe fits nicely between those two extremes. He definitely has a certain look in terms of his lighting and direction.  At the same time, he also does a very good job at making each portrait seem very personal and is able to get some remarkable results out of his sitters (e.g. Alice Neel and Louise Bourgeois). Most of his subjects are famous, but not recognizably so (usually other artists) and so while you may recognize names, the subjects aren’t inherently charismatic.

In terms of curation, there’s a lot of extra information provided on each portrait. Some of it is background on the subject. This is nice and helps us in situations where the subject isn’t recognizable to a general audience. Most of the rest of the information concerns details from the contact sheet and how those reveal the process of the photoshoot. While I wish I could see the contact sheets, it’s still good to see them referenced.

One other interesting aspect of the curation is that there was also quite a bit of lighting information provided for each portrait. It’s fascinating to see how his lighting setups got more sophisticated. Between the lighting information and the create your own portrait activity room where you can play with different lighting setups and backgrounds, there’s an obvious attempt to educate people how much more is involved in making a professional portrait. It’s always good to see a museum try and educate people that photography is more than just a camera.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

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