Robert Mapplethorpe: American Flag, 1977. (c) Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation Inc.

Robert Mapplethorpe’s two American Flags

On Flag Day we look at his Stars and Stripes photos and ask what they reveal about the artist

What kind of artist turns his attention from S&M club denizens to self-portraiture, from flowers to fellow artists, to film and pop stars, to the American flag? Someone like Robert Mapplethorpe.

Though better known for his lily studies and sexually explicit imagery, the US photographer trained his lens on the American flag on a number of occasions. This early image (top) was taken in the summer of 1977 in the Pines, a gay-friendly resort on New Yorks’ Fire Island, where Mapplethorpe’s lover, Sam Wagstaff, had rented a house.

The picture was shot almost exactly two hundred years after the States officially adopted the Stars and Stripes, and displays the same sharp, exacting reproduction standards Mapplethorpe insisted on in his work at this time, whether shooting a perfect lily, or the masked clientele of a Manhattan sex club.

Black-and-white film, Mapplethorpe’s preferred medium at this point, might not seem like a wise choice for so colourful a subject, yet the photographer captures unexpected nobility in the tattered cloth.


Flag, 1987, by Robert Mapplethorpe Copyright: © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation
Flag, 1987, by Robert Mapplethorpe Copyright: © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Mapplethorpe returned to the US flag ten years later, in 1987. By that time was a well-established artist, had been diagnosed with AIDS, and knew he did not have long to live. The flag he chose to photograph in this instance was an unbroken pristine one, flying near horizontal in a stiff breeze.

In contrast, his earlier tattered flag, a little less erect, and perhaps more windblown might offer us insight into the unapologetic way this singular American artist found and presented his sources of beauty.

To see more Mapplethorpe images, order a copy of Mapplethorpe Flora: The Complete Flowers.