As a photographer, Mapplethorpe first gained recognition for his work documenting New York City in the late 1970. Later in his career, his focus shifted to the black male nude. His approach towards framing the Afro-American male proved overtly sexual and uncharacteristic of the tradition of fine art nudes. Mapplethorpe’s released “The Black Book” (1986) in tandem to “Black Males” (1983). Lacing the pages of the aforementioned are explicit photographs exuding an unparalleled eroticism. The Afro-American men, stripped of their clothing, are perversely objectified in an lewd and arousing manner. The images compiling Mapplethorpe’s body of work stray from the conventional aesthetic of nude portraiture in Western fine art, which traditionally captured the white female body.The palimpsestic female body is a site where cultural phenomenology and social perversions have historically been inscribed. In Ways of Seeing, John Berger famously articulates the disparity: “men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at1” (Berger 45). Thus, women come to define themselves according to how they feel they are perceived. The “relation of the spectator to spectacle is an intricately gendered system2” (Pajaczkowska 12). The gaze outside the individual plays a prominent role in the construction of a female’s subjectivity and its objectification. “The image of the female nude can thus be understood not so much as a representation of (hetero)sexual desire, but as a form of objectification which articulates masculine hegemony and dominance over the very apparatus of representation itself” (Mercer 437). However, in the case Mapplethorpe’s nudes, the notion of the gaze is complicated by the fact that both the object and the subject are male. Having the male assume a passive position as object of the gaze destabilizes the hegemonic gender dichotomy.
Mapplethorpe, in evoking this racial fetishism, reinforces deeply engrained cultural stereotypes of the black male as a sexual object. This sexual idealization of the male nude strengthens the discourse of the ‘Other‘, a reassurance that alleviate the threat this sexuality poses to the white male ego. Yet, despite the absence of passivity on the part of the black male, there remains an objectification of the subject. A return of the gaze is crippled by the fact that the nameless model is oftentimes decapitated. The fetishized nude is rarely framed as a whole, instead the physique is cropped so to unveil only parts- the chiseled abs, the sweat on his thigh, his broad chest). This further exacerbates the unabashed anonymity of the male models whose void expression when captured still fails to render a sense of subjectivity. Fetishized and commodified, the worth of these photographs are hinged on the use and exchange value of their signification. “ As Victor Burgin has remarked, sexual fetishism dovetails with commodity fetishism to inflate the economic value of the print in art photography” (Mercer 444). Mapplethorpe’s two catalogues of images unveil post- colonial anxiety coupled with suppressed fetishism, fear and desire for the black male