Robert Mapplethorpe: John McKendry, 1975. All photographs (c) Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation Inc

Mapplethorpe’s Muses - John McKendry

Read how the photographer immortalised the last day of the man who helped him in his photography career

When Robert Mapplethorpe first met John McKendry in 1971, it was McKendry who knew more about photography. The Canadian-born arts professional was the curator of prints and photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and he took the opportunity to show both Mapplethorpe and his friend, the musician Patti Smith, around the Met’s photographic archives.

As our newly updated monograph on Mapplethorpe explains, the young artist was “fascinated by the idea of photography as fine art and by the printing process. He is particularly drawn to the work of Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand.”

McKendry gave Mapplethorpe his first Polaroid camera, and encouraged him to pursue photography more seriously. Unfortunately, McKendry would not live long enough to see his protégé reach the peak of his career. As the National Galleries of Scotland explain with reference to this 1975 portrait – a print of which is in its collection - “McKendry was an alcoholic and this photograph of him was taken in hospital the day before he died [aged 42], his face slathered in royal jelly moisturizer.”

The shining features, and strangely cropped-in electrical sockets hint at something turbulent and unnatural, lying just beyond the viewfinder. The deathly features, of course foreshadow the photographer’s later portraits, and alas self-portraits, of those suffering from the then-deadly HIV virus.


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

Yet there’s also something tender in the shot; McKendry has a dreamy aspect about him, and the way his lips are parted suggests he might be about to utter some bon mot, rather than any morbid reflection on life and death.

Indeed, this old friend stayed with Mapplethorpe. In 1976, the photographer created his first dye-transfer images. His subjects were the Archbishop of Canterbury [a candid shot, across a park, not a seated portrait], Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg, and McKendry.

Though the curator may have died before his time, he lives on in photo collections across the world, thanks to Mapplethorpe’s portrait.


Robert Mapplethorpe
Robert Mapplethorpe

To see this and many more images, 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.