The other Mapplethorpe: at one with toddlers, still working with Patti Smith

Edward Mapplethorpe grew up in the shadow of his big brother, the photographer Robert, but was also nurtured by him and his circle, not least Patti Smith. Now Edward has produced 'One', including writings by Smith and others - see her poem below - and his own portraits of one-year-old babies. Kashmira Gander asks him about his 'unfinishable non-project' 

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The Independent Culture

Photographer Edward Mapplethorpe, a talented artist in his own right, was partly raised by some of the towering names of late 20th century New York alternative culture. Fresh out of college, he was assisting in the studio of his big brother Robert - the photographer at the heart of the scene - where visitors openly explored drugs and sex. So it's inevitable that, in discussing his work, his relationship with his sibling will crop up. Particularly when Robert did some pictures of gay sex that had to be screened from under-18s when they were shown in London, while Edward has been shooting little babies.

And, initially at least, there's an equal contrast between these portraits of innocence and Edward’s previous abstract works. However, the 60 portraits in his new book are the antithesis of any cutesy clichés. There are no babies sleeping, cradled in adults' arms or dressed in twee outfits. Instead, they are captured bare, staring into a lens that documents their raw humanity. They've spent a year absorbing the world, but are still too young to make much sense of it.

This is a notion that speaks to Edward’s own life-experience. Thirteen years younger than Robert, on the one hand, he had a conservative Catholic childhood; on the other, it was peppered with appearances by his older brother, who had already pointedly rejected his parents' values. Robert also anointed eight-year-old Edward as the family’s next artist – which led to Patti Smith giving him a copy of Art for Children by the Russian-French modernist artist Marc Chagall inscribed with the words: “Eddie, hope you’ll be one too someday’. (A book on the Cubist Paul Klee, and records by Jimi Hendrix and T-Rex, would follow.)

Smith writes in her 2010 memoir Just Kids – which charts her intense friendship with Robert - that it was from Edward that she learned her soul mate had died from an AIDs-related disease. And in 2012, she became a Universal Life minister to officiate at the marriage of Edward and his partner Michelle Yun. It seems natural, then, that she should set the tone of One - with a poem about the crucial first year of life (republished at the bottom of this article). This appears alongside an introduction on the curiosity of children by the renowned psychiatrist Samantha Boardman, and a piece exploring their vulnerable development by culture, politics and psychology writer Andrew Solomon.

In part a meditation on cyclical nature of life, the book features not only the children of Edward’s clients but also his son Harrison Cheng-Siang, to whom it is dedicated. (Harrison turned one as the first infant his father photographed was coming of age and celebrating her 21st birthday.) I corresponded with Edward earlier this month:

What inspired you to take photographs of one-year-old children?  

I knew that there was something special about the first portrait of a one-year-old that I did in 1995.  However, I did not have any intention at that time to pursue doing pictures of one-year old children.  Simple word-of-mouth led me to several other commissions and it was only then that I felt I could turn this into something substantial and something completely my own. 

Despite their age, some of the subjects have adult-like expressions. Why did you select these images for the book?  

I make it clear to all of my clients that there is little negotiating with a child at this age, so they must remain open minded and accept how the child happens to be on the day of the sitting. I still shoot with film so I make a selection of two negatives and make 24”x20“ gelatin silver prints. I want to keep the integrity of the very first 1995 photograph, so I have insisted on remaining true to the medium in that way.

Of these two portraits, one is typically a picture that I am confident that the parents will like. The other is usually more challenging, but what I consider the better picture. Most clients come around and agree with me years later. I will only choose a smiling picture if the smile is extremely spontaneous and typical of that child on that day.  

How do you set up the shots? 

Although the set I use has been slightly refined over the years, it has basically been the same since day one.  The child sits in front of a single light source and a white backdrop.  I am quite close with the camera lens so I use a strobe light source to get the depth-of-field necessary for a moving subject to be in focus. The flash of light acts as a door into their personality.  A child will be either excited with curiosity and joy or frightened and scared by the experience.

In the foreword you say that the images 'underscore our common humanity'. Did you intend to document this or is this something that you noticed after you completed the project?

I didn't have any intentions of making a declaration with these portraits when I started 20 years ago.  They were singular interesting pictures for the first few years until a pattern began to develop.  A universal statement only really became apparent when I started editing and printing.

What did you hope at achieve with the project?

I think I should make it clear that this was never really a “project” of mine.  Most everything else I have done in my 30-year career I consider projects since they are conceived, executed, and then completed.  This, on the other hand, metamorphosed into something outside of myself and will never be completed. The subject is simply too fascinating for me to stop. It is a group of work about time as much as anything else.

The monochrome style of the images gives a mature feeling to the subjects. Is that the intention?

I never have had any desire to do baby pictures. There are studios in every town that do those types of pictures and are very good at it. I believe that there is a real need for those pictures but I am happy to leave it for others. For me a successful portrait of a one-year old child is one that is timeless. For this reason you will never see any accessories or clothes. To include anything other than the bare shouldered child immediately dates the picture. 

Your son is featured in the book. Was the process of photographing him different to the other children?

I had to wear two hats when I photographed my son. One was as a father and the other was as a professional doing a job. I was curious how that was going to feel. The importance of getting the picture is always paramount to anything else so I played more of the role of a photographer than I did a father. It happened naturally and turned out to be the right thing to do.

Did having a child change your perspective on photographing one-year-olds?

Having a child of my own hasn't changed my perspective as much as it has changed my respect and understanding of parents everywhere. 

What do you hope readers will take away from the book?

I hope that people who see this book will take the time to read the incredible essays that the pictures inspired. I am humbled that contemporary writers of such calibre agreed to contribute to the publication. They each found something quite unique to say about children and the hope they hold for our future. Their words validate how I grew to appreciate the children I photograph.

Untitled poem by Patti Smith from 'One: Sons and Daughters'

One year one life

One coupling vine

Hands like yours

Eyes like mine

A shard of love

A troubled brow

An ancient soul

We know not how

Bathed in a light

Of cherub wings

A sense that one

Divines all things

One year one life

One girl one boy

One will churn

Reclaim our joy

One will build

One will play

Notes that none

Would cast away

One is beauty

One is truth

One is future

One was you

‘One: Sons & Daughters’ by Edward Mapplethorpe and others is published by Powerhouse Books

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