Focus on the Collection: Robert Mapplethorpe

During the 1970s and 1980s, American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–1989)  galvanized the New York art scene with his daring, compelling, and often explicit black-and-white images. Concentrating his practice on the human figure, along with portraits and still lifes, Mapplethorpe was renowned for his careful attention to light, form and composition.

Drawing inspiration from photographic works of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Mapplethorpe developed both technical mastery and a bold personal aesthetic. i Known for his signature black-and-white portraits and provocatively staged nudes, Mapplethorpe photographed models, celebrities and individuals from his social circle.

One of his most prolific collaborations was with Lisa Lyon, crowned the first World Women’s Bodybuilding Champion in 1979. ii Lyon made a name for herself within the male-dominated world of weightlifting, defying the notion that women were physically incapable of developing such strength and muscle definition. Although Lyon had studied film criticism and various forms of dance in her early career, her interest in Kendo, the Japanese art of fencing, introduced her to weight training. iii Through discipline and determination, Lyon transformed her physique and earned public recognition for her considerable accomplishments.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Lisa Lyon, 1980. Gelatin silver print.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Lisa Lyon, 1980, gelatin silver print, 35.4 x 35.4 cm. Purchased 2019. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission. Photo: NGC

Mapplethorpe pursued his investigations of the body in photographs of Lisa Lyon, whose composure challenged stereotypical understandings of gender constructs. The pair worked together for several years, publishing the book Lady, Lisa Lyon in 1983, which featured Mapplethorpe’s photographs of Lyon in various poses, tropes and settings. iv Although Lyon demonstrated remarkable strength and self-possession, these traits did not overshadow or jeopardize her femininity and identity as a woman.

Mapplethorpe’s photographs not only documented Lyon’s achievements, but re-framed her athletic endeavours through artistic expression, recording the transient nature of her physical pursuits. In this specific work, we see a portrait of Lyon shielding herself with her right hand, while looking directly at the camera. The photograph demonstrates her stature and agency, achieved with Mapplethorpe’s immaculate image gradation and tonality, despite the stark contrasts between light and shadow.


Learn more…


Born in 1946, and raised in a suburb of New York City, Robert Mapplethorpe was a Manhattan-based photographer and artist. He studied at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he earned early recognition for his mixed-media collages, paintings and sculptures.

Mapplethorpe was introduced to photography in 1970, when he received a Polaroid camera from artist and filmmaker Sandy Daley. v In 1989, after establishing a successful career as a photographer, Mapplethorpe passed away from complications due to AIDS. Mapplethorpe remains an iconic artist with a lasting legacy, whose work can be found in the collections of major international museums and galleries.


i "Robert Mapplethorpe," Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., Vol. 10 (Detroit, MI: Gale, 2004), 227-228. Accessed 01/14/2021.

ii Lisa Lyon and Douglas Kent Hall, Lisa Lyon's Body Magic (New York: Bantam Books, 1981), p. 183.

iii Ibid.

iv “Biography,” The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Accessed 01/14/2021.

v Ibid.


Share this article: 

About the Author

Supported by

Scotiabank Photography Program


Soutenu par

Programme de photographie Banque Scotia