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When Robert Mapplethorpe

turned his camera on friends

and lovers, the results were

revealing in more ways than

the photographer intended.

Tim Hilton assesses an icon

ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE's life is interesting for a number of reasons, even if you haven't got a commitment to white-on-black sado-masochistic homosexuality. He did have some eminence as a photographer, and his camerawork raised questions about a subject we can't ignore - pornography in the public world. Personally, I'm curious about the way that this kid with no more than average talents became so successful. Was it because of the intrinsic quality of his photos, or did the time and place - New York in the 1970s - somehow require his sort of fame?

Patricia Morrisroe's unreflective recent biography, Mapplethorpe, ignores such matters. I believe her to be too bland about the deadhead amoralism of the Mapplethorpe circle. She writes that he did no creative work at all unless high on "marijuana, amphetamines, Quaaludes, acid, MDA and amyl nitrite", and to his biographer this seems okay. She reports that he had a thing about Nazi regalia, without further comment except to mention that a Jewish shopkeeper was upset. Mapplethorpe liked to photograph men who were eating his faeces. No reaction from Morrisroe. She seems seriously to believe that Mapplethorpe's screwball girlfriend, the punk singer / poetess Patti Smith, was a "visionary", therefore a genuine cultural figure. And so on ...

But we can't tell whether Mapplethorpe was important. I guess that his most telling work is still unpublished, awaiting either a more enlightened or a more degraded time than our own. We have many hints that his photographs were more aesthetically powerful when most explicitly pornographic. But we don't see the relevant images. Here's a paradox of the new memorial volume, Altars. Morrisroe's biography leads us to expect that Mapplethorpe's camerawork will be extreme. Altars, though, is a book of photographs which give the impression that his oeuvre has been softened. Here is S&M for the home and the Sunday papers.

Looking at Altars, so much seems familiar. We see, for instance, that it was from Mapplethorpe that Gilbert & George imitated their recent "Naked Shit" pictures. And what a sub-culture of older imitations is now revealed! For Mapplethorpe was himself derivative. His early works all come from the exhausted Pop Art of the early 1970s. He was then an imitator of Andy Warhol. Concerned to shock, he used an amount of religious imagery. Mapplethorpe (like Warhol) had a Catholic background and often made his work in the shape of crosses. At other times he copied the off-centre rectangles of "straight" abstract artists who were prominent in the early 1970s, in particular Ellsworth Kelly and Kenneth Noland.

There were also sculptures - dead squirrels in a suitcase, that sort of thing - and some fetishistic jewellery, but nothing good enough or sufficiently dramatic to get Mapplethorpe known on the art-fashion scene (he knew he had no future in the real art world). He was good at networking, though, hustled well at Mickey Ruskin's bar and then managed to place himself under the protection and guidance of two cruising curators from established museums, John McKendry and Sam Wagstaff. These two turned him on to photography. He found that he had a natural gift with the camera, so long as the subject matter was right. By good fortune those subjects were all around him.

Now Mapplethorpe's story began to chime with his times. His biographer claims, I thinkcorrectly, that by 1974 there was a rush to sado-masochism beyond a minority of gay people in the West Village. She cites Susan Sontag's essay "Fascinating Fascism", the artist Robert Morris's publicity posters of Nazi helmets and Liliana Cavani's film The Night Porter. "Brutality chic" exactly suited Mapplethorpe's style, both in photography and life. Most of his photos, we learn, were taken in his studio loft after a night of sexual games. Cool as the pictures usually were, they recorded Mapplethorpe's victories, other people's submission.

Really he was a portraitist, with strong sexual overtones. He caught Patti Smith rather well, though some of her pictures look too amateur and the more professional ones look like record covers (indeed, some of them are record covers). Mapplethorpe failed when he tried advertising photography or documentary. Since the only goods he desired were drugs or bodies he was a little out of line with consumerism as a whole. His picture of Princess Margaret with a bottle of gin is amusing, nothing more. But when it comes to black men, and especially black men's cocks, then Mapplethorpe seems incomparable.

I write "seems" because I'm no expert on such material. But surely everyone will recognise the beauty of the three-part nude portrait of Bob Love. Perhaps it owes a little too much to sports photography and is therefore not dirty enough. But there we are: Mapplethorpe has made us think of the niceties of dirtiness, so he has made a point. I can't agree with the view that he was an aesthete in the line of Wilde, Beardsley, Cocteau, etc. They were intelligent and cultured. He was not. Photography is the art form that depends most on luck, and Mapplethorpe was lucky in his time and place. Thus he became, for a little while, a sort of dying young god of New York decadence. He died of an Aids-related illness in 1989. Altars includes an interesting essay by Edmund White in which he laments his lost friend and argues that photographs of bondage subvert Middle America's "puritanical hatred of pleasure".

! The memorial volume, 'Altars' (published by Jonathan Cape, pounds 50), from which these pictures are taken, and Patricia Morrisroe's biography, 'Mapplethorpe' (Macmillan, pounds 20), are both available now.