Robert Mapplethorpe made his reputation as a photographer in the period between the 1969 gay-bashing raid at the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street and the identification of HIV in 1983. This was the High Renaissance, the Age of Discovery, the Bourbon Louis Romp, the Victorian imperial pomp, the Jazz Age, the Camelot moonshot, the Swinging Sixties of gay culture in New York.
In the 18th century New York punished sodomy with death. This was later reduced to 14 years’ solitary or hard labour. By 1950, it was only a misdemeanour. By the Seventies, it was becoming positively fashion-able, like a ten-speed bike or a breadmaking machine. The bulk of Mapplethorpe’s pictures of this era, which include a lot of willies, active and inert, chained, pinned, licked and bound, are, depending on your taste, exhilaratingly frank or wince-makingly disgusting.
Mapplethorpe then made a second reputation, after an Aids diagnosis. In his decline, he shot a series of self-portraits showing the ravages the disease wrought on his once- pretty features. These mix residual narcissism with pitiless self-analysis. When he died, aged 42, in 1989 the New York Times obituary described him (and the foundation he established) as ‘a symbol of courage and resistance to the disease’. It said perhaps a little less about his photography.