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Photography and the Shock of the Actual: the Case of Robert Mapplethorpe


III: Photography and the Shock of the Actual: the Case of Robert Mapplethorpe
  • 19th Century photography--for porn, for portraiture, for identification of criminals
  • The "brownie" and catching Kodak moments
  • Robert Mapplethorpe's "X Portfolio" and the NEA: a case study in the shock of the actual
  • the digital mutation: the image no longer indexes an antecedent object or a moment
Narrative: Photo-graph is Greek for "light writing." In the early days of photography many argued that copyright over a photograph was impossible because the image was "drawn" by "nature." To this day the power of the photograph consists to its evidentiary power--upon the notion that upon the photograph there is a trace of the actual object and a moment of inscription deposited upon the negative and rendered visible on the positive copy of that negative. That is why photographs can be entered into court as evidence of a crime: it produces produce proof of some thing "there" at the time and place of the inscription of the image. Many of the earliest uses of photography suggest the power of this inscription of the actual upon film: pornography etches the nakedness of an actual model into an image, the portrait captures a unique individual, and a compiled inventory of mug shots can aid in the identification of criminals.(T. Gunning) New technologies extended the reach of the photograph: the cheap Kodak camera enabled millions of amateurs to become photographers of the intimate family life; the telegraph allowed transmission of the news photograph around the world; cinema introduced movement into photography; xerography allowed incorporation of images into the most ordinary newsletter; television transmitted the image; video allowed it to be recorded, and the jpg and the avi has brought the photograph and the moving image to the computer screen.
But with the new forms of digital manipulation of the image, a breach with the actual has occurred. With the ability to compose the simulation of a photograph (a species of "anti-photograph") out of iterable elements, we may be reaching the close of the era when a photographic image can be taken as an index of the actual object, or a moment of inscription. Digial workers have become to create complex narrative films without lived actors or material sets: the image is being set free from the matter it used to etch.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait, 1978. Always the naughty boy. Note the blatant theatrically and the arch irony of this image's address to the viewer. With this image, I find that a website on censorship cannot elude the dynamics it describes. I have censored this image, as well as of next five images, in order to respect the sensibilities of more sensitive viewers.

Robert Mapplethorpe and the Contraversy about funding the NEA: The story of the scandal precipitated by a showing of a retrosepective show of the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe has been told many times. Here are the key facts: NEA funding was used by the ICA at Uof Penn to put together a show, entitled "The Perfect Moment", to offer a retrospective of a talented young artist Robert Mapplethorpe, who had recently died of AIDS. The show included provocative images from gay sexual practices, as well as some images of young girls with their genitalia exposed. Members of the Christian right found out about this show, and support for another photographer Andreas Serrano, which included an image of a crucifix suspended in urine ("Piss Christ.") When members of the Christian right circulated some of these images in their news letters to consituents, certain members of congress were inundated with protest letters. This led to a debate on the Senate floor--led by Jesse Helms and Alphonse D'Amato--condemning the NEA for sponsoring this pornography as art. The debate that ensued mobilized the art community, the Christian right, and many between these two extremes in what came to called the "culture wars." What is most pivotal here is the power of photographs to shock--not simply by what they re-present, but also by what they evidence--acts and practices and events. These became the focus of litigation when the director of the Cincinnati Museum, who had sponsored a show devoted to Robert Mapplethorpe's photography, was taken to court on grounds of obscenity. Five photographs were selected as grounds for the prosecution. Here is one, entitled "Marty and Veronica."
Marty and Veronica 1982 In the most extreme images of the Mapplethrope show--the X Portfolio--displayed as small images on tables in the gallery of the show, one could find representation of sexual practices that were considered by many observes to go over the line: for many this was not art but pornography--both improper and inappropriate. Here are the four other images entered into evidence at the trail. See if you think these images are obscene by the Supreme Court standard in Miller v. California, and then compare your judgment to the verdict of the jury. According to Miller vs California ( ) , the Supreme Court ruling that still governs the definition of obsenity, an image can only be judged obscene if it meets all three of these tests:

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