Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

How Edward Mapplethorpe Got His Name Back


Edward Mapplethorpe, self-portrait, 1990.  

When Edward was 16, he was so curious about his increasingly famous brother’s life that he called him one day and arranged a visit. He took the subway from Queens into “the city” to Robert’s infamous Bond Street loft. In a 2006 documentary, Edward described the visit: “It was a very darkly lit space, a lot of devil figures. He had Ed Ruscha’s Evil piece up over his bed … I was nervous, meeting this brother that I didn’t know … He put an eight-by-ten book of photographs in front of me and said, ‘What do you think of this?’ And there were, right in front of me at 16, these images of leather-bound and hard-core … He said off the cuff, ‘What would Dad think of that?’ And here is some guy peeing in another guy’s mouth. Or the fist-fuck pictures. I laughed at it, but … I think I was so taken by Robert and his lifestyle, I wanted to get to know him.”

One night, Mapplethorpe and I go to dinner at Indochine, the eighties institution in his old stomping ground. A few blocks south, just off Lafayette Street, is 24 Bond, the place where Robert Mapplethorpe would invite his subjects to do drugs, have sex, and then be photographed. As we finish dinner, Edward begins to tell me how he was drawn into his brother’s circle. His fascination with Robert had continued since that first meeting, and he had decided, against his father’s wishes, to study photography at SUNY Stony Brook. He wrote a paper about Robert for one of his photography classes. “Mapplethorpe on Mapplethorpe,” he says with a laugh. “You should read it.” Written in 1981, before his brother became an international sensation, it is a sort of time capsule of their relationship, of Edward’s trying to comprehend this distant brother, his sexuality, his provocations: “Why did I know so little about Robert Mapplethorpe? … After all, he is my brother—isn’t he? Technically, yes; in reality, no.” He writes of a recent visit to the loft, where Robert told his brother he was gay. “Although I was well aware of his homosexuality, I was overwhelmed by his openly admitting it to me that Sunday afternoon. I feel confident in saying that I am the only one in his ‘blood family’ that he would be able to do so. And for this reason, I feel that I stand out from the rest of the family.”

Standing out from the rest of the family made life difficult at home. In December 1981, Edward graduated and found himself directionless and miserable. “My father’s like, ‘Are you going to get a job? You can’t live here.’ ” He later found out that his mother called Robert to ask if her youngest son might go to work for him. Edward was summoned to the Bond Street loft. “He said, ‘I’m not so sure I like the idea of my little brother working for me. I don’t want you to be any sort of link back home.’ ” But they decided to give it a go. “From that point on,” says Edward, “we developed a friendship. He was very proud to introduce me to people. He liked the fact that somebody in his family understood him.”

Edward got quite an education at 24 Bond. His brother’s studio, he says, was “so sexually charged that you needed to be pretty certain of who you were to be around it on a day-to-day basis. If I were gay, I would have gone for it then and there, no doubt.” Working for his brother also inured Edward to the idea of daily drug use. “Robert smoked pot pretty much every day,” he says. “And he liked his cocaine. During a shoot, the subject would go to the bathroom and he would offer me some coke.”

After years of not really knowing each other, Edward and Robert fell into a routine, working in the studio side by side. “They had a very similar temperament, similar character,” says Smith. “Robert loved Edward. He was almost fatherly towards him. He trusted him and depended on him. Edward was a selfless assistant. He always understood the power and ability of his brother.”

Still, Edward’s presence changed Robert’s work in a fundamental way. He brought formal training to the studio—lighting and darkroom skills that his brother lacked. James Danziger, who owned a gallery in Soho in the early nineties and was Edward’s first art dealer, says, “Not to take anything away from Robert, but his early work was kind of rough in a way. Circa 1982, when Robert started producing his trademark twenty-by-twenty-inch square prints—beautiful flowers, portraits—we are seeing Robert Mapplethorpe’s vision sort of run through Edward’s lighting and printing.” Edward reluctantly takes the compliment. “Yes, I was more formally trained,” he says, “but his pictures became so slick. I happen to like the early work better myself, the work he did without me. As far as the darkroom is concerned, Robert hadn’t a clue. He hated the darkroom.”

Current Issue
Subscribe to New York

Give a Gift