Robert Mapplethorpe, Imogen Cunningham, and Modernist Photography

The author of this month’s essay, James Adam Sanders, was a student in Art Since 1960 when he wrote it. In the essay, he considers the lasting influence of American modernist photography (as represented by OSU Museum of Art collection artist, Imogen Cunningham) on later photographers—and considers how Robert Mapplethorpe, in particular, transformed that influence in work that asks social questions still relevant today.


Robert Mapplethorpe, “Lisa Lyon,” 1981. Gelatin silver print, 20 x 16 inches.

To many viewers outside the world of art, Robert Mapplethorpe’s work of the 1970s and early 1980s raises questions. Mapplethorpe himself acknowledged that he was extremely attracted to pornography and the hidden world of S&M—a fascination that he talked about openly in a 1983 interview. Mapplethorpe says in the interview that he wanted to see how far he could stretch the line between art and porn. Many have given him credit for creating the genre of fetish art, and there can be no argument that he definitely brought it to the forefront of conversations about contemporary aesthetics. Although some American audiences weren’t ready for Mapplethorpe’s work, it started a dialogue that needed to be opened. He prompted viewers to ask why the source of one’s passion matters, and whether we have to agree with each other about sexuality in order to have engaging conversations about passion and beauty.


Imogen Cunningham (American, 1883-1976), Tower of Jewels (Magnolia Blossom), 1925. Gelatin silver print, Gardiner Permanent Art Collection, Oklahoma State University.

In terms of both quality and thematic subject, Mapplethorpe’s work strongly resembles Imogen Cunningham’s photographs from the 1920s. Both artists are directly or indirectly addressing sex, be it a sensual plant or a nude person. Their images are both repulsive and engaging, and they share a use of strong contrast with excellent composition and an ability to make even the darkest image pretty. Regardless of subject matter, Mapplethorpe’s work is simply beautiful. He used similar formal techniques to photograph people, flowers, erotic scenes, and more. His uniformly careful craft elevated these images, in the eyes of critics, to the status of art. His work has been extensively exhibited in galleries and collected by museums.

I would like to think that he wants us to question his artwork, and try to expand our thinking into the possibilities of a greater acceptance of each other. I also feel that we, as the viewers, having these discussions would make Mapplethorpe proud, knowing that we give his art recognition and find meaning in it for ourselves.

Further resources:


This essay has been edited for clarity, but the argument has not been altered.

About osucurator

Louise Siddons is Associate Professor of Art History at Oklahoma State University and founding curator of the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art. She maintains this blog as a record of her students' work with the Museum's permanent collection as well as more generally with topics related to museum studies.
This entry was posted in permanent collection, student research, student writing. Bookmark the permalink.

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