Robert Mapplethorpe and 21st Century Audiences

23 Feb 2015

This is a world that is increasingly becoming immersed in images and image making.

From masterpieces of all proportions, mediums and materials hanging on the walls of museums to abandoned gratuit newspapers strewn across the heavily trodden walkways of the city to an advert for the latest Hollywood episodic comicbook movie on the side of a building to Snapchatand Facebook. Today one is subjected to images routinely and regularly without interval.

The properties of image making, in particular that of photography, have expanded exponentially in the last two decades, mostly as a result of the advent of digital technologies and the growth of social networking.

Participants of my workshops across Tate Modern and Tate Britain range from nine to ninety years of age. All of the participants come equipped with their own cameras and smartphones ready at any moment to capture and encapsulate a piece of their experience at the museum in the infinite stillness of a photograph. A selfie with one of the artworks or the London skyline.

Often when walking around the museum one can encounter visitors with arms stretched out and heads pulled back, carefully constructing facial gestures, image making for all to see. Indeed it is not uncommon to witness teenagers and forty-somethings wearing dark sunglasses indoors vogueing by the museum coffee shop with the tripod replaced by an outstretched arm. It is precisely our familiarity to these nuances, vocabularies and behaviours that can lead to the unwrapping of the invitations woven into the carefully constructed compositions of Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs.

Regularly I devise and deliver workshops, tours and lectures to assist and enhance the audience in interpreting and experiencing the works of art in the museum. Mapplethorpe's portraitureprovides the participants with a masterclass in composition and integrity. During the workshops we slowly study the works in the gallery. We look at, think about and discuss the scale, colour (black and white) context and the subject which is being depicted within the confounds of the frame.

The participants gather around Self-Portrait (1975) and I begin speaking "In this work, Mapplethorpe's right arm stretches across the full width of the image. On the right hand side of the photograph his naked body is exposed to the full scrutiny of the camera. Mapplethorpe wears a grin on his face as if to declare the ultimate fallacy in the function of the photograph." What fallacy? That it can only ever capture the subject in a fleeting moment. He has abandoned himself to this fallacy and this is evident throughout every molecule of his body exposed to the camera. The philosopher and theorist Roland Barthes writes in his book Camera Lucida on Self-Portrait (1975) that "the hand is at the right degree of openness... the right density of abandonment". The group slowly move away from the piece and on to the next one, transfixed by the strangeness of the image.

Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs seem to have never been so accessible to audiences as they are today, perhaps because of the 'phenomenon' of the selfie or the resurrection of identity politics within the dominant culture and contemporary politics. Either way, this collection provides us with a poignant and necessary benchmark in the history of contemporary portraiture and it is an invaluable resource for learning within the national collection.