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Images Shaping History is Back

We recently took a hiatus to get our sister nonprofit organization the Labragirl Film Project up and running. Now, it’s time to return to our conversations about the power of images — both moving and still.

This week Resident Blogger Declan Murphy looks at Robert Mapplethorpe’s controversial 1989 photography exhibit. The Perfect Moment’s controversial images of a subculture within the homosexual community started a passionate discussion about censorship and homosexuality. Declan’s historical conversation looks at the power of the still image and discusses how a photography exhibition became a social agent that shifted power in cultural and political arenas.

Labragirl believes that it’s important to look back at this controversial situation and ask:

        • Why were these images controversial? Why did they spark such passion?
        • How are these images perceived today?
        • How did Mapplethorpe’s exhibit and the public’s reaction to it shape cultural and political discussions?
        • Have these images played a role in defining the way the public has come to perceive homosexuality?
        • How does controversy shape history?

As Declan adeptly points out, Mapplethorpe’s individual images and his collective exhibit moved a very private and marginalized subculture into mainstream society. Certainly, this is an example of Images Shaping History.


Resident Blogger Declan Murphy

Resident Blogger Declan Murphy

In 1989, Robert Mapplethorpe’s exhibit Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment sparked passionate conversation about censorship and homosexuality.   The exhibit consisted of a range of images, from close-ups of flowers to traditional nude portraits to black and white portraits of homosexual men participating in sadomasochistic acts. 

There were also several images depicting interracial sex acts in the exhibit; this added an additional layer of uncomfortable social discourse to a mainstream America still very much grappling with racial issues.

[Click for photo credit.]

Mapplethorpe’s photos illustrated that this subculture within the homosexual community existed and deserved attention. Mapplethorpe’s skill as a photographer and his subject matter taught viewers a new visual code. (Sontag, 3) By giving a visual voice to this subculture Mapplethorpe enlarged the public’s notion of what was worth viewing. He took sexual activity—customarily a private act—and made it public. Mapplethorpe demystified the sexual activity of a subculture within the homosexual community.

Although many vehemently criticized and censored Mapplethorpe’s work, society has started to remember Mapplethorpe in a slightly softer light. Recognizing the censorship’s affect, in 2011, Time magazine placed Mapplethorpe on its ‘Top 10 Persecuted Artists’ list because of the discrimination The Perfect Moment exhibit faced.


With relatively little objection, The Perfect Moment exhibit traveled to Chicago and Philadelphia where the more controversial images of gay men participating in S&M acts were displayed in an age-restricted area of the museum. Once news of the images reached the public and political arenas, a passionate argument about both censorship and homosexuality ensued.

Robert Mapplethorpe [Click for photo credit.]

The Perfect Moment as a Political Agent

Because the exhibit received funding from a government entity, the National Endowment of Arts (NEA), The Perfect Moment moved beyond the cultural arena to become a full blown political controversy.

When Republic Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina learned that the NEA had contributed financial backing to a photography exhibit that contained images of a sadomasochistic homosexual subculture, Helms voiced his contempt for the exhibit on the Senate floor and distributed copies of the controversial photos to other Senators and Representatives in Congress. Then, with the support of numerous politicians, Helms sent a complaint letter to the NEA.

Response to this protest varied. On the one hand, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C, which was scheduled to show the exhibit, gave way to the growing controversy and canceled their commitment to show the photos, effectively censoring Mapplethorpe’s work.  On the other hand, The Washington Project for the Arts agreed to show Mapplethorpe’s work and the exhibit was well attended.

Protest against the censorship [Click for photo credit.]

Mapplethorpe’s museum exhibition became an institution that helped shrink the space between social groups. Rather than remaining hidden in a drawer or exhibited at a small privately owned and rarely visited gallery, Mapplethorpe’s photos received funding from the NEA and traveled to major museums in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Cincinnati. The gap between a subgroup in the homosexual community and the dominant heterosexual culture was narrowed by the public venues and public attention the photos received.

Our Interaction with the Photographs

Photography can bring attention to a side of life people would otherwise have no way of accessing. Without being a participant in the actual sex acts, the viewers of Mapplethorpe’s exhibit experienced something homosexuality sadomasochistic by looking at the photos. The viewer is reliving the event when looking at the photo.

In the photo Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter, issues of dominance and subordination are visible.  Here one man sits in shackles and another man holds a leash connected to the shackled man.  Both men are wearing leather pants and jackets. Leather and chains are a common theme and device for the sadomasochistic subculture.  This theme of dominance and subordination is appearing in Mapplethorpe’s photos because subaltern homosexual culture is so removed, ignored, and subordinate to mainstream society.

Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter [Click for photo credit.]

The shock caused by the visual presentation of this group’s existence resulted in the censorship of Mapplethore’s The Perfect Moment.  In the end, these photos depict the existence of a subculture, and the exhibit was beneficial because it accelerated the move of the subculture from the private sphere to the public sphere.

What is the legacy of this controversy?

How did this images shape our social discourse about homosexuality and censorship?

How does controversy shape history?

Let’s talk about Images Shaping History. . .

Until next time,







Fraser, Nancy.  Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy.  The Cultural Studies ReaderEd. Simon During.  New York:  Routledge,  1993.  488-506

Sontag, Susan.  On Photography.  New York:  Doubleday, 1989.

Time Magazine: