We usually think we have seen everything Robert Mapplethorpe ever photographed. It’s been shown in every way possible, even the dark prints of his nighttime descent into the Anvil or the gay scene of the New York peers. Thaddaeus Ropac, who represents the photographer’s estate, had another idea: to confront Mapplethorpe’s work with the vision of the Ghana born English fashion editor, Edward Enninful, Global creative and Cultural Advisor to Vogue. How would someone who looks at images all day to compose a magazine look at Mapplethorpe’s images ? Enninful got carte blanche to search through the archives of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. 

“I am used to images fighting with each other or working together, used to tension and opposites or harmony,” explains Enninful. “Sometimes, things which you would not expect to go together find serenity in chaos.” 

Edward Enninful’s idea was to present 46 images in pairs. It creates new ways of looking at the images. For instance, a portrait of a young hyper muscular Arnold Schwarzenegger echoes with the very large sleeves of an haute couture dress. A young naked body responds to two very tortured hands. This play lends us to look at each image very differently. Mapplethorpe - and Enninful - make us reconsider our notion of beauty. 

The show is a selection of still lives, portraits, nudes and fashion. Mapplethorpes’s images meet Enninful’s work as a fashion magazine editor. The photographer was interested in questioning the way we look at beauty and in finding beauty in unlikely places, while the editor widened the notion of beauty by moving away from the archetype that has been in favor for decades in fashion magazines and choosing models of different skin color or body type. Both are fighting an unspoken discrimination. 

Edward Enninful discovered the work of Mapplethorpe early in the 1990’s in the photographer’s controversial “Black Book”, first published in 1986, celebrating black men’s bodies through 96 very erotic images. Enninful says he was first attracted to these photos for their exquisite light and tonal gradations which allow us to penetrate deep into the pores of the gleaming black skins. Jean-Sébastien Stehli

Robert Mapplethorpe curated by Edward Enninful. Thaddaeus gallery Paris. Until April 6. ropac.net/

April 03, 2024 — Sonam Khetan