Color is Clutter (and The Mapplethorpe of My Eye)

I always loved this Mapplethorpe photo, not because it’s a very large, very handsome — and perfectly straight — dick, but rather it’s entitled, “Philip, 1980”. If only my skin tone was two PANTONE shades darker, I could say, “yeah, that’s me!” Of course, I would have only been like, seven, when that photo was taken.

There’s something about black-and-white photography that’s always turned me on. Yeah sure, I come from a newsprint background, but that’s not it. My love for black-and-white photos goes way back, long before I was ever a newspaper and magazine publisher — but it could very well be what attracted me to the medium in the first place.

There’s something more artful about black-and-white, or greyscale. Perhaps it’s more surreal. Not that all photos, color or not, aren’t surreal, it’s just more obvious with a lack of color. All photography is a creative invention. That’s not to say all photography is art — though some might argue that — and perhaps there was a time when that was more true than now. Today, everyone walks around with a color camera in their pocket snapping photos of everything from what’s for lunch to “look at my new car!” and often photography — color photography — as an art form is taken for granted.

Cameras have taken on more of a utilitarian role — like paintbrushes for painting your house. Sure, painting your walls is indeed painting but it’s not Bob Ross art. Same goes for snapping a quick photo of that delicious Reuben you just ordered. You’re not really trying to create art as much as you are preserving a memory or having something to brag about on Instagram. Strip out the color though, and suddenly that Reuben photo looks like a masterpiece.

Why? Because the absence of color emphasizes abstractions and reduces distractions. Suddenly, your eyes are focused on the Reuben itself, not the world around it; on it’s peaks and valleys, on intricacies and idiosyncrasies you may not have noticed otherwise. Your brain goes to work, your imagination filling in the color, the rest.

When I was putting together magazine layouts, I’d often purposely convert color photos to greyscale and often manipulate them even further to center focus on the subject. Photographers and editors would often give me heat — “color is better!” — thinking it made their articles appear more prominently in-print, as if it were some sort of badge of honor or a privilege they earned by being a good writer. My response was always the same, “Color is Clutter!” — that way the writing always stood on its own.

Granted, I’m no photographer. But I do fancy myself an artist. I’m a writer, in a visual medium. I create color with words. Now I’m sure there are plenty of bona fide photographers that can make equal arguments for color and greyscale, but that’s not my point.

My point is: color is great for everything, for recreating what we see with our eyes (like preserving a memory or an event) and for immersing ourselves into new realities (like an action movie, or even a porn flick), but to me, we all see and interpret color differently, and therefore we interpret every color photo differently. That’s not a bad thing, it’s what we do when we admire paintings in a museum. In black-and-white, however, we all see it the same — for its structure and composition, for what it is.

I’m not anti-color. I’m just anti-“the same as everyone else”.

Mapplethorpe Rules

Self Portrait — Robert Mapplethorpe

Robert Mapplethorpe (November 4,1946 — March 9, 1989) was a groundbreaking photographer best known for his erotic, black-and-white photography. His work featured an array of subjects, including celebrity portraits, male and female nudes, self-portraits, and still-life images — like flowers (which we’ll get to in a minute). His most controversial works documented and examined the gay male BDSM subculture of New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Mapplethorpe’s 1989 exhibition, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, sparked a debate in the United States concerning both use of public funds for “obscene” artwork and the Constitutional limits of free speech in the United States.

I once dated a girl in New York City who took me to my first Mapplethorpe exhibit. I had no idea who he was or what to expect. She just told me, “He invented black-and-white photography”, which made no sense to me because I always thought it was Johann Zahn or Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. At first glance, all I saw was a bunch of gay sex and bondage photos, including “Philip, 1980” (the “dick pic” above).

“Hey, look at that! He named it after me,” I told her.
“You wish,” she said.
“No, he named it ‘Philip'”
“And I said, you wish.”

I remember some woman stood there the entire time staring at Philip’s dick like it was a Van Gogh, better yet, a Picockso. Nothing stood out to me. It seemed like a whole lot of beefcake and black cock to me. I wasn’t really turned on by any of it until I saw this:

Calla Lily, 1986 — Robert Mapplethorpe

Of all the photos in an exhibit, of all the photos in the world not of tits and ass or vaginas or people fucking, I would have never imagined a photo of a flower giving me a boner. There was just something so beautiful about it, so feminine, so sensual, sultry …erotic. The lines, the light, the shadows, the curves — it’s almost obscene. For him to take something as simple as a pretty flower and turn it into a sex object was beyond me.

It was in that moment I fell in love with black-and-white photography, or maybe I discovered the love for it I had all along. Whatever the case, we had to run back through the exhibit so I could re-experience each and every photograph for what it was — a masterpiece. I didn’t see dicks anymore, I saw composition, form, and contrast. I saw light and shadow. Timeless elegance. Photos on paper equal to Greek statues of stone.

In the Technicolor, disco-globed world of the 1970s and early 80s, Robert Mapplethorpe was the Johnny Cash Man in Black of Photography. At a time when the world was riding the heels of new-and-improved color television and celebrating color everywhere — especially them God awful neons of the 1980s — he, and others like him, stood alone like monochromatic islands — or in his case, a peninsula — in the sea of color.

Now I know what that chick meant when she said he invented black-and-white photography. I get it now. But all intellectual discussion aside, it just looks fucking cool. To me, anyway. Can’t it just be that?

Robert Mapplethorpe died March 9, 1989 at the age of 42 of complications from HIV/AIDs. His art and his legacy live on through The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. To learn more about Robert and experience his amazing photos for yourself, visit www.mapplethorpe.org.

— P

P.S. — In case you haven’t noticed yet, the SCREW Magazine website is now primarily retro black-and-white. That was done on-purpose. No need to adjust your screen.

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