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Dear folks, I recently saw this book of some of Maplethorp's photos of women, and their faces don't seem to have any complextion or poors or hair or anything; how did he do that? Is that flawless skin the result of make up or lighting or is it a thin negative (or a thick negative for that matter?)? And I realize all of you have your own aesthetic opinions about how much detail ought to be in a portrait, and I certainly respect your opinion. But could someone address the technical how-to of getting a smooth white face against a rich black back ground. Is this the result of straight on lighting, under expose a stop and develop N+1 or what? Thanks

-- david clark (doc@ellensburg.com), April 18, 2000


First of all it is Robert Mapplethorpe. I take it you are refering to the portraits that make up the book Some WomenSome of the effect seems to be from makeup and some of it seems to stem from very exacting lighting, and the n even more exacting printing, including judicious use of a black diffuser under the enlarging lens. That can cause a slight "glow" to highlights. But since some or all of those prints may be on a platinum palladium emulsion, if that is used it was used in the making of the enlarged ccpy negative necessary for platinum/palladium printing. If that is the case then the enlarged negative might have also been etched as well to get that ethereal effect.

If you look very closely at the reflections in the eyes of the sitters and at the shadows and overall modeling effect , you'll see that Mapplethorpe almost never used "straight on lighting". There almost always a sense of depth and not the flattened out characteristic of "straight on" lighting.

-- Ellis Vener (evphoto@insync.net), April 18, 2000.

I've got "Some Women" in front of me right now and I can see where Ellis is coming from. Lighting and makeup are definitely contributing factors. Also, there are some shots that look as though a little diffusion may have been used. However, one thing that should be mentioned as a possibility is filtration. There is a good chance that Mapplethorpe used a yellow or red filter in front of the taking lens for many of the shots. Using a yellow or red filter will lighten caucasion skin on b&w films and greatly reduce the appearance of blemishes in the final photograph. I often use red filtration when I'm taking portraits, and though my results are hardly up to par with Mapplethorpe's, the effect is very similar. Overall, I think the immaculate results he achieved were due to vast amounts of talent combined with absolute technical mastery. Just a thought...

-- Dave Munson (orthoptera@juno.com), April 18, 2000.

Thank you for your responses. From the above, do you think one could approximate this look outdoors with natural light using a yellow or red filter on the taking lens, developing the neg in a weak solution of Rodinal, and printing on a warmtone paper with a warmtone developer?

-- david clark (doc@ellensburg.com), April 18, 2000.

I'm not sure how successful you'd be trying to get this exact same effect outdoors with natural lighting. I think part of the success of Mapplethorpe's portraits is due to the striking contrast between those creamy white flesh tones and the jet black background. This contrast would be something much more easily done in the studio. That said, one can still get some absolutely superb results working with available light outdoors. The yellow/red filter would help with the skin tones, that's for sure. Assuming you want the dark background, you might try using a large piece of dark background material behind the model and using several diffusing panels and reflectors to put even lighting on the model's face. If the dark background isn't too terribly important to you, things are made a lot easier for you. Just using a couple diffusing and reflecting panels would do wonders. Whatever path you choose in the matter, good luck!

-- Dave Munson (orthoptera@juno.com), April 18, 2000.

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