Male Art Photography: Robert Mapplethorpe and Duane Michels

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Origins of photographing the male figure

The origins of male art photography can be traced back to the beginnings of photography itself. Eadweard Muybridge and Thomas Eakins used the male body to study locomotion of the body and used the photographs as studies for paintings. Photographers like Guglielmo Pluschow and Wihelm Von Gloeden started to take images of men specifically for the purpose of creating art. Much is made of the female form in photography and the male gaze therefore often the discussion on the male form is neglected. Robert Mapplethorpe and Duane Michals are postmodern photographers who have both have created art using men as their subject. Their styles are distinctly different and both create photographs that demand attention and add to critical discussions of postmodern photographic practices.

Robert Mapplethorpe and the fetish of the body

Robert Mapplethorpe is an art photographer who has extensively photographed the male body. Mapplethorpe’s photographs of the nude male in the 1980s used the language of pornography to create erotic images that in The Art of Interruption John Roberts states “open out an assertive space for the representation of gay lifestyles and pleasures.” Mapplethorpe photographed males in a highly stylized way that fetishized the male form. John Pultz comments that these images were “blurring the boundaries between art and photography.” The backdrop to all Mapplethorpe’s nude images are stark in black or white and objects are minimalist and serve only to intensify the bare flesh that is exposed in the image. John Pultz argues that the reason that these images have been stripped down to this minimal state is that they “present a challenge by destroying the repression upon which the use of sex in advertising depends.” These images of the male nude served to reinvigorate debates in photography about the gaze, sexuality, pornography, advertising and the politics of the gay male in the shadow of AIDS.

Tips to make a Mapplethorpe

To emulate the style of Robert Mapplethorpe it is important that you have either a studio space or a space where you can hang a plain black or white sheer background. Make sure that your space is warm as if your model is cold the skin will be covered in goose pimples or may become mottled and this is not the effect you want in your pictures. If you look at Mapplethorpe’s work you will notice that the skin shines and reflects the light. To do this in your in your photographs of men ask the model to apply baby oil or moisturizer to their skin just prior to the shoot. Use continuous daylight bulbs to light your model and reflectors. Think about where you want the shadows and the highlights to be in each shot and change the set-up accordingly. Look closely at the nudes of Mapplethorpe and ask your model to try some of the poses he uses.

Duane Michals and the narrative of the image

Duane Michals photographs of the male nude take a different route to engage the viewer. Michals’ photographic practice is more about creating narratives through imagery and Michals uses staged sequences that often lead to unexpected places. Michals male figures took a similar path into a surrealist world where in sequences like “Paradise Regained” Michals starts with a male and a female staring directly at the camera dressed in suits and standing in an office. In the next image the man has removed his jacket and trees have appeared in the background. By the end of the sequence both the participants are naked and completely surrounded by greenery; the office has morphed into Eden. “The Unfortunate Man” by Michals shows a naked man pushing against a wall with boots on his hands and text written underneath the image that expands the narrative. The male form in Michal’s imagery does not make the body into a fetish but draws the viewer into a puzzle and questions how we use photography itself to tell stories.

Tips to make a Michals

Duane Michals photographs need a lot less equipment in lighting. It is best to go for a lo-fi approach that will lend a more intimate quality to your images that will emulate Michals’ style. Use a bedroom, an attic, an alleyway or another intimate place where you can set up a sequence of images. Make sure you work out the narrative you want to convey before starting to shoot. Think about the surreal qualities of Michals’ work and ask yourself how you can disrupt the natural order of the imagery. If your model or models are standing in an alleyway ask what you would least expect to find there. Try using a personal story that would speak to people universally. Use objects to convey meaning and ask your models to pose in an unusual way. Michals imagery is asking the viewer to think but also at times to get the joke or the puzzle.


Roberts, John. The Art of Interruption, The Manchester University Press, 1998

Pultz, John. Photography and the Body, Orion Publishing Group, London, 1995

Edited by Philippi, Simone. 20th Century Photography Museum Ludwig Cologne, Taschen, 2008

Masters of Photography: Robert Mapplethorpe:

Big Kugels: Early Nudes