Mapplethorpe Redefined in Patti Smith’s “Just Kids”

By Matthew Bamberg / Dec 8, 2012
Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe

Probably the most interesting book about photography that came out in 2012 was a nonfiction book by rocker Patti Smith about her relationship with the controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

Smith writes a book filled with vivid details of two incipient artists in their early twenties living in New York City, revealing a relationship that breaks the boundaries of sexual orientation.

If you’re at all familiar with Mapplethorpe, you are probably aware of an artist’s work that is synonymous with photography perfection, one who well known for his flawless photographs of flowers. More than that, though, Mapplethorpe was also known as the photographer who brought  AIDS under the microscope when he photographed men with deadly Karposi’s Sarcoma lesions that appeared on the skin of some of the first sufferers of the disease.

The images stirred up controversy among the media and rocked the art world with shocking documentary photography from a little-known New York artist who ultimately climbed the that world’s ladder of success.

Before this time–the 1970s–Mapplethorpe’s intimate partner was a woman, not a man as most people might have expected from an artist who also photographed lurid sexual acts among men, so technically perfect that the acts became secondary to the quality of the photography.

Robert Mapplethorpe as depicted in Patti Smith’s Just Kids as a perplexed man is unsure of his sexuality, a man who sought comfort in a stable relationship with another artist–a poet and musician–that sparked an intimate relationship  beyond the bounds of common assumptions.

Just Kids moves from one Manhattan scene to another adroitly through a series of encounters with offbeat personalities with excruciating talent, a tight-knit group of Warhol friends whose art rocketed them to fame, adding a new dimension to pop culture and art

The book’s descriptive language and sequential forays into a world unknown to most should be on every contemporary artist’s reading list to gain both knowledge and understanding of a man whose art become more popular among the mainstream each day.

About the author

Matthew Bamberg

Matthew Bamberg has provided photographs and written articles for various Southern California newspapers and magazines, including The Desert Sun and The Press-Enterprise. More recently, Matt has been teaching at UC Riverside while also authoring several books like the Quick and Easy Secrets book series (Cengage), Killer Photos with Your iPhone (with Kris Krug and Greg Ketchum, Cengage), the 50 Greatest Photo Opportunities in San Francisco (Cengage) and Digital Art Photography For Dummies (Wiley).