Robert Mapplethorpe: Lisa Lyon, 1982. (c) Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation Inc

Mapplethorpe’s Muses - Lisa Lyon

We focus on a few of the photographer’s favourite models, beginning with this female bodybuilder friend

Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs aren’t restricted to the male body, though he did, to a considerable degree, focus on masculine beauty. In our new book, the critic Arthur C Danto quotes the photographer as saying, that when it came to shooting female subjects, “the creative impulse is not there.”

“Photographing women is not the experience I am seeking,” Mapplethorpe reasons. However, there was one principle exception to this rule: the Californian body builder Lisa Lyon.

Lyon was born in Los Angeles in 1953, and developed an interest in weight training in an attempt to improve her kendo – the Japanese sword-fighting martial art – while studying at UCLA.

She entered and won just one single competition - the first IFBB Women’s World Pro Bodybuilding Championships in Los Angeles on June 16, 1979 – before retiring from the profession to become a bodybuilding advocate, public figure and model, posing for Playboy and Helmut Newton as well as Mapplethorpe.

Mapplethorpe began taking Lyon’s picture in 1980, and went on to produce over 100 images, publishing many of them in a book in 1983, entitled Lady Lisa Lyon.


Robert Mapplethorpe: Self-Portrait, 1980.
Robert Mapplethorpe: Self-Portrait, 1980.

It’s a telling title, as her figure isn’t an unalloyed depiction of simple, feminine beauty. Danto characterises her as “a woman who played with the edge of femininity and implicit androgyny.

“It was as if she sought to bring herself to the edge that partitions the sexes without altogether crossing it,” Danto goes on. “Female body-building has come a long way since Lisa Lyon, and, what with the use of steroids, there are women whose female attributes seem relics of a prior existence. Lyon, by contrast, is startlingly feminine in Mapplethorpe’s photographs, and it is difficult for us to see her masculinity. Mapplethorpe photographed her in certain costumes that were perhaps meant to put her masculine identity into relief—lacy lingerie, bridal veil, and so on—but these seem to have the reverse effect of that intended.”


Robert Mapplethorpe
Robert Mapplethorpe

Even the mud in this image, above, dating from 1982, doesn’t serve to disguise or mask, but instead emphasises her incredibly beautiful musculature. To see many more images of Lyon captured by this brilliant 20th century photographer, order a copy of our new Robert Mapplethorpe book, a revised and updated edition of the most comprehensive survey published of Mapplethorpe's photography. 

Edited by Mark Holborn, with an introduction by Andrew Sullivan and a poem by Patti Smith, this hardback book comes in an elegant yet durable slipcase, preserving the beautiful, difficult images, for decades to come. Want to go further with Robert Mapplethorpe? Check out more of his photographs at Artspace.