Friday, March 20, 2015

Edward Mapplethorpe

By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch

Perhaps Edward Mapplethorpe could have chosen an easier path than becoming an art photographer but because he is the real thing, he probably didn’t have a choice—he needed to be what he is. Emerging from the long shadow of his brother Robert has been the challenge of his artistic life.  The youngest of six children, and twelve years younger than Robert, Edward didn’t grow up knowing his brother very well. That changed when, in 1982, he went to work for him as an assistant in the fabled Bond Street loft, a charged and intense environment, worlds away from Floral Park in Queens where the brothers had grown up.

Edward Mapplethorpe, Robert's camera, 1989
Robert was not very interested in printing so Edward, who was trained in darkroom technique and who has an arts degree from Stony Brook University, was entrusted with that side of the process. They worked well together but it wasn’t always easy. Edward looked like Robert and, when he eventually started to produce his own work, that looked like Robert’s work too.

Edward knew it and in the 1990s forced himself out of the studio to make Undercurrents, a series of beautiful black-and-white underwater studies. The photographs reveal the painterly quality that characterizes much of his subsequent work. There is too evidence of his continuing and even subconscious, concern with symmetries.

Since then he has worked in other media including abstract drawings on paper and a series of photograms using both human and animal hair. His tender portraits of one-year-old babies are astonishing because they are both unsentimental and shockingly pure—something for which he credits his brother. 

Much has been written about the strength of the love as well as the strength of the tensions that lay between the brothers, that an insecure Robert made Edward change his name to Maxey (their mother’s maiden name) and about Edward’s former drug addiction. There is too, the tragedy of losing two of his brothers, both of whom he cared for during their illnesses, and the further sadness of the early death of his mother around the same time. But somehow it didn’t seem right to talk so much of all these things.
Edward with his wife, Michelle Yun, and their newborn, Harrison.
From the get go, the interview was fun. He’s happy and the apartment was full of life. We met the whole family, Edward’s wife, Michelle Yun, a curator at the Asia Society, their tiny newborn, Harrison, Lucy the bulldog and a dozing Tonkinese cat called Coco. The past that we didn’t talk about very much is important—but there’s the future to move into, a book to complete and a son to raise: “I’ve waited a long time for this,” he said. “For a long time, it’s been all about me and my career, and dreams … that’s not everything in life.”
Edward selecting negatives from a contact sheet in his studio.
Darkroom sinks and chemicals in Edward's studio.
Processing trays.
A contact sheet of a one-year-old baby's portrait, one of the photographs that will appear in Edward's forthcoming book, One, to be published in spring 2016.
Cleaning the negative in preparation to print.
The selected negative is placed in the enlarger carrier; it will be then be placed into the enlarger.
You have a darkroom and something I wanted to ask you about was the way in movies there’s often “the exciting darkroom scene”, where the lighting is all weird red and they put the print into that tray of fluid, swish it about, then something emerges in the image … and you just know that is going to be a pivotal point in the film … they’re not to going to have that in movies anymore.

You know, I’ve thrown the idea out there – one day what I want to do is a [darkroom] installation. The concept of the darkroom is something I’ve gravitated to, it’s something I love and it’s lost. Everybody’s sense of a darkroom is only in the movies, so I want to do an installation in a gallery where that is the artwork.

That’s such a good idea—where would you take it?

Well if you ever see somebody working in a darkroom, it’s a dance.
Edward places the negative into the enlarger.
Adjusting the lens setting.
Perfecting the contrast.
Focusing the enlarged negative on to the easel.
The negative in focus.
Edward is adjusting the exposure on a corner of the image.
It’s also the alchemy of it –you’re the sorcerer doing your work.

It’s magical and there are other key moments to process, not just [the moment] when the image comes to life.

It’s something people need to know about.

I’m curious because there’s people who either work with me or are involved in my brother’s foundation—not one of them has said, “You know what? I want to see what you do.” – because I printed for my brother … you’ve read all about that?

Yes, we have. What drew you to photography rather than other art forms?

You know, my father was interested in photography. In fact when he was in high school, he and my mother had a little photography business. He had a little darkroom in his basement; he would gather all the film from his friends, process it and do contact sheets and charge them. He never had any intentions of making that his career—and in fact there is a lot I can tell you about that because he didn’t see it as a career at all, not for Robert or subsequently for me.
The image, as it gradually appears on the exposed developing paper.
Lifting the print out of the developing solution to be placed in the stop bath.
The image in the stop bath.
The developed print is in for a final wash.
Squeezing out the excess water.
The final print!
And when you did start doing it, did it just make sense to you?

It made sense to me when I took a workshop in college and I worked in the darkroom. That’s when it made sense to me. Yes, I learned f-stops and shutter speeds but getting in the darkroom and actually making my own prints was what mattered. I have a very academic background. I did very well at school, so I probably could have gone into science or math—I loved math—but I also knew I had this sort of creative side.

Would you say in your work there is a set of concerns, some kind of organizing principal around which your work moves?

Hmm … I mean that’s a life journey. I gotta say that I’ve done so many different pieces of work that it was only when going through it all and building a website that I was able to see a thread—and in fact Michelle [Edward’s wife, a curator at the Asia Society] was very helpful in that. Everything builds subsequently on the next body of work.
Edward's new project, pictures of grain, are in the works.
A close-up of the studio office area.
A 2007 painting of Edward by Bill Rangel was given as a gift.
Are you able to describe that thread? Would it be, perhaps, your way of seeing?

If you look at that early work, it is strikingly very similar to Mapplethorpe—Robert Mapplethorpe. Now, I don’t want to keep going back to that …

But everyone initially falls under the influence of someone early on—it’s part of how you learn; it’s not “copying”.

Absolutely. I worked so closely with him but later, I was like, “I’ve got to get out of the studio! I’ve got to stop taking photographs of people and still lifes because I’m not going to have any future.” But the underwater pictures [a series of photographs from 1990-1992 entitled Undercurrents] –if you look at the symmetry of them and the way they’re composed (and I was upside down; I didn’t even know how to dive) but there is a symmetry, or an asymmetry or an angle that is just within me.
An atmospheric photo of the Empire State Building taken by Edward in 2005 dominates the wall of the front entryway of his apartment (which is upstairs from his studio).
A 1958 Wurlitzer jukebox that was originally owned by Edward's brother, Robert Mapplethorpe.
It still works fine.
Three photo-lithographs by Edward hang on an entryway wall.
The kitchen: a window grate is repurposed as a place to hang pots and pans. Aero Saarinen's Tulip table and chairs add a modernist element to the eating area of the kitchen.
Coco, a Tonkinese cat, resting on his faux fur bed.
If you didn’t know how to dive, why did you decide to take a series of underwater photographs?

I knew I wanted to make a bold step and I know it’s a cliché but I had a dream one night, an underwater dream. I woke up and I thought, I’ve seen amazing pictures taken underwater but basically color, National Geographic or connected to that. I had never really seen anything done in black and white by an art photographer. So I called my assistant at the time and I said, “I’ve had this idea and I know it’s crazy, but would you be on board?”

Or underwater, as it turned out …

[laughs] Yes! We had to go and get certified. We did it at a YMCA over on the East Side.

They do scuba diving courses at the Y?!

They do. But you have to do your open water dives somewhere else. Most people will do them when they get to the warm waters, to the Caribbean, but we did our open water dives out in Montauk in February. But I’m not an adventurer … if it wasn’t for taking the pictures, I wouldn’t have done it. And I was always reminded that being underwater is not really a place we’re supposed to be. We’re voyeurs.
A view across the living room designed to function as both a seating and office space.
In the living room seating area a Chesterfield sofa stands in front of a coffee table designed in 1985 by Edward's brother, Robert Mapplethorpe. Edward inherited the table after the death of his father, Harry, in 2001.
A Bloom 'Coco' baby lounger for Harrison made out of leather and wood has become part of the seating area arrangement. Next to the lounger is a Stickley armchair; the lighted glass shelves hold a sculpture by Michelle.
The living room walls are covered with bookcases filled with Michelle and Edward's collection of art and photography books. To keep a sense of order, all the books are alphabetically organized.
Isn’t all photography voyeuristic?

[pauses] … yeah.

Professional photographers very rarely talk in that incredibly boring way about photography, you know the way amateurs who are really interested in photography talk, all that stuff about apertures and shutter speeds and lenses or whatever …

Oh, do you know how many times I’ve found myself in a social situation and they’re like, I don’t know, a relative or someone is there and he’s a photography nerd— and the host says, “You have to talk to Edward.” And I’m like, “Oh no!” They’re gadget people. And it’s only gotten worse. Think about this: when I was 20, it was interesting to be a photographer. But everybody’s a photographer now.
It’s diluted the charge of the medium. I mean Moby just had a show!

What I feel is that people are so busy taking photographs, they’re not experiencing the moment.

You have the same sentiment as me. I think we’re from the same generation.

You know Patti [Smith] married us and I thought I had everything figured out but one thing I didn’t do is tell people not to take pictures during the ceremony because there are lot of pictures of Michelle coming down [the aisle] and everybody’s like this [mimes taking a photo with a phone] … first of all, it doesn’t make for a good photograph plus I wanted people to be there, to share this experience with me … and not take pictures of it.
Edward's tidy home office runs across the rear wall of the living room.
Art catalogs, abstract art in themselves.
The desktop has a carved back wall that also serves as a place to hang keys for various purposes.
Edward's extensive CD collection, also alphabetically organized, is housed near the living room window.
A vintage Mica Arts and Crafts floor lamp stands next to flatbed file cabinets that hold Edward's photography.
A large mirror above the Chesterfield sofa reflects the living room office shelves.
How ambitious are you?

I could be more ambitious, I guess. [laughs]. You know, I’m at a new stage in my life, being a new dad. I mean, I’ve waited a long time for this. For a long time, it’s been all about me, and my career, and dreams and … aagh! It just got to the point where I thought: that’s not everything in life. Relationships and family is the big part—and should be.

To what extent was your ambition to do with actually developing your career and to what extent was it to just becoming your own person, to not be under your brother’s shadow or to be constantly associated with him?

It’s interesting that you’re separating the two because I see the two as one and the same. I had a career with a whole different name [At one point Edward changed his name from Mapplethorpe to his mother’s maiden name, Maxey]. Robert wasn’t unhappy when I did decide to do that but he didn’t make me.
Looking past a Stickley armchair towards a living room alcove that has been transformed into Harrison's sleeping area.
Harrison's crib. Leaning against the wall is a large portrait of a one-year-old baby by Edward. The photograph, part of a series, will be included in Edward's forthcoming book, One, to be published in spring 2016. In a corner of Harrison's room a piggybank by Harry Allen for Areaware stands next to a stuffed pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama.
Stuffed animals are arranged atop an Asian chest. The lithograph is by Joseph Kosuth and the cast sculpture of a puppy is by Yoshitomo Nara.
Harrison's sleeping area easily converts to a play space.
Do you regret changing your name?

At the time, no. But it was a useless endeavor because it was: “This is Edward Maxey—he’s Robert Mapplethorpe’s brother.” Now instead of that it’s: “This is Edward Mapplethorpe … “Oh, are you related?”

You’re not going to get away from it.

I tried!

Have you come to terms with the fact that you’re not going to get away from it?

Fully? One hundred per cent? No. It’s hard.
Lucy waiting patiently for the door to open ...
So she can retrieve her favorite fleecy dog toy (and make JH play fetch) ...
Next up, Lucy's favorite porcupine toy.
Taking a breather.
Lucy—flat out.
Time for a nap for Harrison, too.
But isn’t that the same for anyone related to someone famous?

You know in the performing arts, there are so many siblings and sons of … it’s almost pushed because it almost legitimizes the parent’s careers, you know, “it’s in the genes”. Whereas, if you think about it, in the visual arts, nobody likes it.

But why? Why isn’t it considered to be in the genes the same way?

I would like to hear an answer to that. Maybe it’s because there’s so much money invested in that one unique name?

I was thinking about how much literature and mythology is filled with stories of brothers. Have you ever thought of addressing that theme in your work in some way?

I haven’t quite formulated anything. It would be good therapy. I did propose to Interview and this goes back many years ago to when Ingrid Sischy was the editor, to do a profile on siblings in the same business—I came up with a whole list like Chris Penn and Sean Penn and I said “I’m the person to shoot it. It would be a good exploration for me.” But …
In Edward and Michelle's bedroom, an oval mirror hangs above an oak highchair that once belonged to older brother Robert Mapplethorpe. The photogram is by Christian Marclay. A divi-divi wood lamp from Aruba that belonged to Edward's mother stands near a photogram by Christian Marclay.
Edward's enthusiasm for Stickley furniture continues in the bedroom. The headboard and bedside tables were purchased at Stickley Audi & Co.
Open metal clothing racks make for easy access to Michelle and Edward's wardrobe.
Essentials for Harrison are at arms reach.
A large, brightly lit fish tank stands opposite Michelle and Edward's bed.
Friendly fish.
An original stained glass door leads to the hall bath.
Views of the Hudson from Edward and Michelle's Audubon Heights pre-war apartment.
Can you describe Robert, your perception of him?

Er … charismatic, good sense of humor, shy … very shy but if he liked you, he made it known that he liked you. He, you know, had a good physical presence so women in particular would be very drawn to him. He was charming and interesting … and that goes back to my earliest memories of him, those times when he would come home with Patti – I would be like, “Wow, that’s blowing my mind! Who are these guys?” You didn’t see that in Floral Park, Queens. It was very alluring. But he didn’t get to know me and I didn’t get to know him until I started working for him.

So how are you different?

I just think I was the most liberal and the most open-minded out of my siblings …

Were you and your parents shocked by his work?

When I was 16, he put up an 8 X 10 hardcore photograph … and what is a 16-year-old’s kid reaction to that? But he loved it. He loved seeing his little brother [shocked] … he was like, “Don’t tell Mom and Dad about it!”
Edward in his studio.
To learn more about Edward or to view his current projects, visit his website at