This is another portrait inspired by the “Exposed” exhibition at SF MOMA. There’s a little bit of a story here. In a back corner of the exhibit, set away from easy view, there was a small alcove dedicated to the work of Robert Mapplethorpe. It included several of his most famous works, including some of the portraits of African American men that he made famous in his collection The Black Book. His portraits of African American men–mostly nudes–continue to spark controversy. If you’re familiar with any of these works, you may have noticed that–however beautiful his photos (and his models)–his portraits are simultaneously celebratory of and degrading to his African American subjects. The camera eye notices and even feasts on the beauty of their faces and bodies, but reveals nothing of the hearts and minds of the men behind the chiseled physiques.
This is not to say that I don’t like Mapplethorpe’s portraits of African American men. My feelings around these photos are more complex. When I look at photographs like the Mapplethorpe image than I re-edited for the background of this image, I know that I am complicit in supporting a body of work whose images many Black men experience as degrading, dehumanizing and hurtful. I have long since given away my copy of The Black Book, but whenever I encounter some of these images, I return to the question of how a photograph can exalt the physical beauty of its subject while at the same time appearing to disregard their personhood.