Published in 1986, Robert Mapplethorpe's BLACK BOOK remains one of my favorite books of photography. Nothing had been published like it previously; nothing comparable has been published since. The book is devoted entirely to shots of black men, some of them naked, some of them not. There are portraits included here as well-- one of my favorites is the stunning portrait of Roedel Middleton on page 70. Some of the images are outrageously beautiful. Many of the models' bodies take on the quality of polished ebony. The four nude photographs of someone named Ajitto in a classical pose-- as are many of the images-- at the beginning of the book are as beautiful as any you will ever see.
It is common knowledge of course now that some of these photographs have been declared obscene (by the likes of Jesse Helms et al.) and racist by some African Americans.(Some of the black men making these allegations, to paraphrase the black poet Don Lee, talk black but sleep white.) According to a less-than-scientific survey by this Caucasian male, there are about 94 photographs included here, only six of them are of body parts-- and I'm not talking here of feet and hands or even behinds here-- 27 are of male nudes with their genitalia exposed, and only in five of them is the model unnamed. Mapplethorpe may well have been a racist, but I fear his critics may have to look elsewhere for proof. An observation or two: his models appear to be willing subjects as no one is tied up or seems to be shot unawares. Secondly, the nature of the male animal of all colors being what it is, there's a good possibility that people having little to offer may have been unwilling to make the sacrifice of giving the viewer the full monty. The artist obviously loved black men and had many black friends as well as lovers. Finally the poet Ntozake Shange has written a beautiful poem as an introduction to this book. Apparently she had no problem with Mapplethorpe's creative vision.
Many of these photographs will last.