There are some cities in the world that seem to be catalysts for social movements, a fertile soil for progress. From the mid 20th Century New York has been such a place, a city of artistic evolution, and revolution.
Robert Mapplethorpe lived at 222 West 23rd Street with his then girlfriend, best friend and muse Patti Smith. The famous Chelsea hotel was the two kids' residence in the 70s. The hotel was meant to be an artist co-op from the architect who built it in 1885. And indeed the hotel was the place to be if you were an artist.
In room 1017, Robert Mapplethorpe started to take his first photographs. Years of personal and financial struggles in New York had led Mapplethorpe to live his authentic self. However, it wasn't until he met Sam Wagstaff, art collector, life partner and patron, that his career was launched, making him the acclaimed artist that we know today.
He worked without apology, instilling the homosexual with grandeur, masculinity, and enviable nobility. Without affectation, he created a presence that was wholly male without sacrificing feminine grace. He was not looking to make a political statement or an announcement of his evolving sexual persuasion. He was presenting something new, something not seen or explored as he saw and explored it. Robert sought to elevate aspects of male experience, to imbue homosexuality with mysticism. As Cocteau said of a Genet poem, "His obscenity is never obscene." Patti Smith - Just Kids
In his work, the masterful use of light and shadow, white space and dark areas, are in conversation with the moral parallelism of the terms. His photography goes beyond barriers, asking us to look at his subjects with dignity and pride, and to appreciate the human kind in all of its forms. It is striking to understand that through a black and white photo, we start to understand the multifaceted nature and complexity of each individual.
The aesthetic that infuses the work of Catherine Opie is as marvelous and impactful as it is delicate and harmonious. Her use of historical allegories on contemporary subjects allow the images to be a strong point of conversation.
She began mostly as a black and white photographer, but it is with her use of colors that her portraits gather a power that enthrals the viewer. Printed using chromochrome we can truly appreciate the congenial contrast of what is presented in front of us. Her early work on the LGBTQ+ community in 1993 titled Portrait is a representation of the queer community of Los Angeles and San Francisco.
In these images she brilliantly conveys the duality and tension between masculinity/ femininity and the aesthetic portrayed in society, by making a comparison to the 1800s classical paintings. By centering her subjects she is challenging the society that marginalized those communities.
Activism and art has always found fertile soil in marginalized community, where artists can voice their dissent. In 1989 Robert Mapplethorpe died aged 42 due to complications from HIV. It is difficult to comprehend the atrocious impact that AIDS had on the LGBTQ+ community throughout the 80s.
Catherine Opie tackled the issue with an extremely intense self portrait called Pervert in response to the narrative that was perpetuated by politicians that ADIS was a disease affecting gay men due to their immoral behaviour.
The self portrait deals with the iconographic power of blood. A symbol strongly in use also during the body art movement that started in the 1960s. One of the major exponents was Gina Pane with her performance of self harm. To literally ignite a strong stimulus on the viewer who would then empathize with the artist. So does Catherine Opie.
The importance of art featuring members of a community being created by members of that community is a crucial concept for Zanele Muholi.
I have seen people speaking and capturing images of lesbians on our behalf, as if we are incapable and mute. I have witnessed this at Gay Pride events, at academic conferences, in the so-called women's movement forums. Research opened my eyes even wider than the lens, and it made me feel autonomous. I refused to become subject matter for others and to be silenced - Zanele Muholi .
Muholi started to take photographs as a personal way to deal with their issues, and they recall it to be a life saving experience . This deeply personal approach elevated them and allowed them to become an influential photographer who is exhibited all over the world in major art events such as the Venice Biennale, Victoria Albert Museum in London and TATE Modern.
It is often on our bodies that society constantly tries to enforce our roles. Artists such as Zanele Muholi challenge and fight the stereotypical narrative that is put upon the queer community. The trauma and biases that they had to endure led to a body of work in 2017 entitled Somnyama Ngonyama (Hail the Dark Lioness) a 365 self portrait that depicts the daily struggle of violence, prejudice and oppression. It's a testament of the events that occurred to the artist as well as their friends' experiences.
Portraiture is one of the most impactful genres in photography. Lia Clay Miller expresses all her sensitivity in her work Community Portrait Project. Famous for her work as a fashion photographer, she has photographed the likes of Billy Porter, Priyanka Chopra Jonas and MJ Rodriguez. In her work Community Portraits the complexity of her visual talent blends with her sensitivity, expressing her voice to the fullest. Miller's work sparks a dialogue with the work of Opie, as they both use portraiture as their chosen medium for a conversation that involves the audience, to participate, and have a discussion.
On her Instagram story titled 35mm we can take a look into her work with color film. Already shown in her editorial work, the use of color is intentional and complementary, becoming a powerful tool in her storytelling and making us feel part of their adventures and stories.
Throughout history art has been a way in which people can connect with and engage in a cause. In this way, art is an essential force that pushes boundaries. The talent that is shown by these photographers lies in the power that these images have to get under our skin and to make us feel involved with them.
Which artist did you know and which one do you want to highlight? Share with us your favorite photos in the comments below!