In honor of AIDS Awareness Month, three photographers are reinterpreting six iconic photographs from the late, great Robert Mapplethorpe.



Meet The 3 Photographers Paying Tribute to Mapplethorpe

Robert Mapplethorpe is an icon of modern American art and one of the biggest advocates for photography as a legitimate medium of artistic expression. Though the American photographer passed away in 1989 at the age of 42, having spent a great deal of his lifetime evolving the public’s more conservative understanding of beauty and art at large with his controversial subject matter, his legacy lives on—both in the form of his photographic archive and from within his namesake foundation. Because he did eventually pass of the relatively controversial illness itself—stemming from social stigmas, its association with the LGBT+ community, and even government conspiracies—it’s clear that Mapplethorpe is one of the strongest representations of the AIDS epidemic and the dangers surrounding it when paired with a lack of understanding or information.

In an era of political disillusionment, the arts community continues to band together in united support of equal rights and equal representation, in relation to the AIDS crisis or otherwise. There is no greater symbol of artistic integrity and absolute uniqueness than Mapplethorpe; thus, the following three artists felt compelled to commemorate selected works of one of the illness’s most prominent victims. Below, photographers Erik Galli, Evan Tan, and Mitch Zachary dove deep into the Mapplethorpe archives, pulled their favorites, and reinterpreted them for a 2017 take on queer art, self-expression, and of course, AIDS awareness. Scroll through to see each Mapplethorpe original beside its recreation and a few words from each artist on their experience with Mapplethorpe’s legacy.

For more on how to get involved in helping to combat the AIDS crisis, visit the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

Erik Galli

Mapplethorpe sent this self-portrait to his lover and patron, Sam Wagstaff, when the latter was in Paris. Wagstaff had a huge impact on Mapplethorpe’s artistry and when they were apart, Wagstaff would articulate himself in his letters—Mapplethorpe would convey his passion through images. I’m currently in a long distance relationship with someone who helps me grow artistically, and my boyfriend and I both know the value of a passionate text, or a faceless nude—perhaps not so different from Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe’s correspondence. 

The photo of a naked Mapplethorpe holding his camera was originally a Polaroid. in 1973, he made hundreds of copies of it and sent them out as invitations to his first solo exhibition. A round, white sticker was placed over his dick, emphasizing the “forbidden” allure of Mapplethorpe’s work and taunting people to find out for themselves what was behind it. The photo strikes a chord with me because while today, most of us take our selfies with our phones, the issue of censorship hasn’t necessarily changed. If I place a round, white sticker on my photo, social media companies like Instagram will allow it. If I remove the sticker, the photograph too will be removed.

Evan Tan

I feel as if Mapplethorpe and I live parallel lives. We are both mysterious creatures who come from the suburbs and photograph people and things we love. He was someone who was completely unafraid at being himself, and embodied that honesty in his work. Every photo is intriguing and has a sense of perfection, he documented aspects of humanity that had never before been allowed, or seen, especially in the art world. His revolutionary work still inspires people today, especially me, being a young bisexual film photographer. In honor of Mapplethorpe, I recreated some of his work using people I love; my friend Malik Shakur is pictured.

Mitch Zachary

When I think of the thousands of artist we lost to the AIDS epidemic losing Mapplethorpe hits close to home. Like most queer photographers, my work is heavily influenced by Mapplethorpe. I’ve always gravitated to his way of communicating intimacy, vulnerability and love, and  These two images represent my favorite things about his work: a soft and vulnerable showcase of male beauty. More and more I’m starting to see the mainstream world, adapt some of the concepts body positivity and diversity that made Mapplethorpe so controversial and loved. And that makes me hopeful.

Images courtesy of Erik Galli, Evan Tan, and Mitch Zachary

Stay tuned to Milk for more on AIDS Awareness Month.

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