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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Biographical/Historical Note
  • Other Finding Aids
  • Administrative Information
  • Related Archival Materials
  • Scope and Content of Collection
  • Indexing Terms

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Robert Mapplethorpe papers and photographs
    Date (inclusive): circa 1850-2011, bulk 1970-1989
    Number: 2011.M.20
    Creator/Collector: Mapplethorpe, Robert
    Physical Description: 317 Linear Feet (311 boxes, 13 flatfile folders, 3 rolls)
    The Getty Research Institute
    Special Collections
    1200 Getty Center Drive, Suite 1100
    Los Angeles 90049-1688
    Business Number: (310) 440-7390
    Fax Number: (310) 440-7780
    URL: http://hdl.handle.net/10020/askref
    (310) 440-7390
    Abstract: The papers and photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) span the artist's career, from his early drawings, collages and jewelry to his renowned photographic work in the 1970s and 1980s. The photographic material in the archive includes Polaroids, photographs, commercial commissions, test shots, and non-editioned prints from the same photography sessions as his editioned prints. Also included in the archive are films, personal and professional correspondence, studio documents, interviews, clippings, exhibition files, financial records, and collected items.
    Request Materials: Request access to the physical materials described in this inventory through the catalog record   for this collection. Click here for the access policy  .
    Language: Collection material is in English.

    Biographical/Historical Note

    A key figure in late 20th-century photography, Robert Mapplethorpe created work with a distinctive tension between opposites: sacred and profane, mainstream and underground, light and dark. From his early Polaroid portraits, to his fashion photography and later controversial work, Mapplethorpe's photographs are well-ordered and emotionally restrained, with chaotic and sensuous elements beneath the surface. Born in Queens, New York in 1946, Mapplethorpe studied graphic arts at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn before dropping out in 1969. He met the musician, poet, and artist Patti Smith in 1967 and they lived together as intimate and artistic partners until 1974. In 1972, Mapplethorpe met two influential curators. John McKendry gave him his first Polaroid camera, with which he made self-portraits and portraits of his friends and acquaintances in the art world. Samuel Wagstaff, Jr. later became the artist's lover and mentor. By the mid-1970s, Mapplethorpe had acquired a medium format camera and began photographing the world of New York's S & M clubs. Mapplethorpe refined his style in the early 1980s to create elegant figure studies, delicate floral still lifes, nudes, and celebrity portraits. His preference for simple compositions and a sophisticated use of lighting to articulate subtleties of form distinguished his mature work. His career was successfully championed by pioneering photography dealer Harry Lunn, who, along with Robert Miller and Robert Self, published portfolios of some of the artist's most challenging work. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Mapplethorpe's X Portfolio was at the center of an American culture war over whether public monies should be used to underwrite art that some deemed obscene or blasphemous. In 1989, at age 42, Mapplethorpe died from complications of AIDS. A year earlier, he established the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, which protects his work, promotes his legacy, and supports the causes he believed in, such as art programs and HIV/AIDS prevention and care.

    Other Finding Aids

    A detailed inventory of the set "Portraits and Self-Portraits" (RMF number U331) in Boxes 19 and 20 can be found online  and in Box 19.

    Administrative Information


    Open for use by qualified researchers with the following exceptions. Polaroid test shots in Series II.D. are currently being digitized and are unavailable until digitization is complete. Audiovisual material is unavailable until it is reformatted. Several fragile items are restricted pending conservation treatment, as indicated in the container list. Sensitive material is sealed for the period of time indicated in the container list. Letters from Patti Smith to Mapplethorpe are sealed for Smith's lifetime. This collection contains content that may be offensive to some viewers and inappropriate for children.

    Publication Rights

    Preferred Citation

    Robert Mapplethorpe papers and photographs, circa 1850-2011 (bulk 1970-1989), The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, Accession no. 2011.M.20.

    Acquisition Information

    Acquired in 2011.
    Series I.A and I.B: Gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to The J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
    Series I.C through Series IX: Gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

    Processing History

    Sheila Prospero, Anne-Marie Walsh, Alexis Adkins, and Lilly Tsukahira processed, re-housed and cataloged Series I.A. and Series I.B. from July-September 2011 under the supervision of Beth Guynn. Revisions were completed by Annette Doss in 2012.
    Zulay Chang processed, re-housed and cataloged Series I.C. and Series II from September 2011 to May 2012 under the supervision of Beth Guynn. Series I.C. was revised by Katie Duvall and Annette Doss.
    Portfolio facsimiles were assembled and described by Jade Finlinson in 2018.
    With grant funding from the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, Katie Duvall processed, re-housed and cataloged Series I.D. through Series I.F., and Series III through Series IX from November 2011 to November 2012 under the supervision of Annette Doss. Revisions after November 2012 were done by Emmabeth Nanol.
    Items in the following boxes require conservation treatment: box 26, 29-31, 49*, 52*, 54, 56, 59*, ff.3**.

    Digital Collection

    Series I.A and Series I.B. have been digitized. Connect to digital collection.   Digital images are provided for study purposes only. Access to images of works by artists other than Mapplethorpe is available only to on-site readers and Getty staff.


    A DVD of the documenatry Robert Mapplethorpe (2006) by Paul Tschinkel was added to the collection in January 2013 (DVD5).

    Related Archival Materials

    Over 2000 editioned prints and other works of art by Robert Mapplethorpe are held at the J. Paul Getty Museum.
    Additional Mapplethorpe materials are found in the Harry Lunn papers, 1971-1989, accession no. 2004.M.17. Connect to finding aid.  
    Samuel Wagstaff papers, 1796-1987 (bulk 1952-1986), accession no. 2005.M.46. Connect to finding aid. 

    Scope and Content of Collection

    The papers and photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe document the career of the prolific artist from 1970 until his death in 1989 and his legacy in the following decades. Encompassing the full range of Mapplethorpe's production, including newly-discovered early drawings, assemblages, jewelry, little-known Polaroids, test shots, non-editioned prints, commercial commissions, and films, the collection demonstrates Mapplethorpe's range of technique and his commitment to a personal vision throughout his life. The archive also provides documentation of Mapplethorpe's working processes and personal and professional relationships through correspondence, studio records, interviews, clippings, ephemera, exhibition files, and financial records.
    The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation maintained and added to the archive from 1989 to 2011. These later additions include archival documents, ephemera and clippings collected by the Foundation, as well as records generated by the Foundation in the course of its work promoting Mapplethorpe's legacy with exhibitions and publications. Not included in the archive are approximately 1,900 of Mapplethorpe's limited-edition prints and other works of art housed at the J. Paul Getty Museum and jointly owned with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
    Series I contains Mapplethorpe's creative output and the artworks he acquired from others. Works by Mapplethorpe include photographs, Polaroids, three-dimensional objects, paintings, and cut-outs. Most photographs are gelatin silver prints and are predominantly self-portraits or portraits of Mapplethorpe's contemporaries. Works by other artists are mostly photographs of Mapplethorpe, and some photographs also feature Patti Smith, Sam Wagstaff, David Croland, Milton Moore, Jack Walls, Lisa Lyon, Francesco and Alba Clemente, Nick Rhodes, and Keith Haring. Other photographs document Mapplethorpe's artworks and jewelry designs. Also included are approximately 1000 non-editioned prints from the same photo sessions as Mapplethorpe's editioned prints; commissioned and commercial work; jewelry; films; and three portfolios featuring some of his earlier prints. Series II documents how Mapplethorpe worked as a photographer. Included are over 3,000 Polaroids that he took as test shots for his editioned prints, an index card inventory of 2,080 prints, model release forms, shooting books that were used to record editioned print information, and three spiral notebooks containing 418 Polaroid test shots.
    Series III comprises photographs documenting Mapplethorpe's work. Included are gallery installation shots, Polaroids, and slides. Series IV includes Mapplethorpe's personal and professional correspondence with friends, models, clients, museums, galleries, and fans. Correspondents include Sam Wagstaff, Lisa Lyon, John McKendry, and Patti Smith. (Note: All letters from Patti Smith to Robert Mapplethorpe are sealed for Smith's lifetime.) Series V contains files related to exhibitions that took place during Mapplethorpe's lifetime. Documents include exhibition reports, press materials, ephemera, posters, and related videos. In Series VI are several documentaries and interviews with Mapplethorpe and others. Series VII contains fincancial and administrative records documenting Mapplethorpe's studio operations. Series VIII consists of items from Mapplethorpe's personal photograph collection of daguerreotypes, vintage pornography, ephemera, his zodiac chart, and other miscellaneous items.
    Series IX comprises materials that the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation created and collected after the artist's death in 1989. Files include correspondence with museums, galleries, and publishers; exhibition files and administrative records; and 27 boxes of collected press clippings related to the censorship controversy and trial in Cincinnati in the early 1990s. Also included are videos of news footage and press coverage of the controversy.


    Arranged in nine series: Series I. Creative work, circa 1850-2009, undated; Series II. Photographic practice, 1978-2000, undated; Series III. Photographic documentation, circa 1969-circa 1989, undated; Series IV. Correspondence, 1969-1991, undated; Series V. Exhibition files, 1977-1992, undated; Series VI. Interviews and documentaries, circa 1980-1989, undated; Series VII. Financial records,1964-1995, undated; Series VIII. Collections and personal items, circa 1880-1989, undated; Series IX. Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, 1989-2011, undated.

    Indexing Terms

    Subjects - Names

    Wagstaff, Samuel J., Jr., 1921-1987
    Smith, Patti
    Lyon, Lisa
    Mapplethorpe, Robert

    Subjects - Topics

    Bodybuilders -- Photographs
    Artists -- United States -- Correspondence
    Censorship -- United States -- History -- 20th century
    Portrait photography -- United States -- 20th century
    Flowers -- Photographs
    Artists -- United States -- 20th century
    Photographers -- United States -- 20th century
    Sadomasochism -- Photographs
    Women bodybuilders -- Photographs
    Sadomasochism in art
    Photography of the nude
    Fetishism in art
    African American men -- Photographs
    Celebrities -- Portraits
    Photography, Artistic
    Photography, Erotic
    Gay men -- Photographs

    Genres and Forms of Material

    Collages (visual works) -- 20th century
    Drawings -- United States -- 20th century
    Gelatin silver prints -- United States -- 20th century
    Assemblages (sculpture) -- United States -- 20th century
    DVDs -- United States -- 20th century
    Still lifes
    Experimental films -- United States -- 20th century
    Nudes (representations)
    Dye difussion transfer prints -- United States -- 20th century
    Diffusion transfer prints -- United States -- 20th century
    Photographs, Original
    Portraits -- United States -- 20th century
    Posters -- United States -- 20th century
    Videotapes -- United States -- 20th century


    Mapplethorpe, Robert
    Seeff, Norman
    Koelbl, Herlinde
    Wagstaff, Samuel J., Jr., 1921-1987
    Amft, Robert, 1916-2012
    Linn, Judy
    Smith, Patti