The Shoot

by Elaine Greene Weisberg


It was New York in the eighties: Money, Baron Guy de Rothschild moves to New York, Conde Nast editors in chief travel on the Concorde, AIDS.

In l987 his publisher asks my friend and colleague Martin Filler, then a top editor at House & Garden, to get a new head shot for PR purposes. Martin asks which photographer they prefer. Pick one they say, send us the bill. Martin, never one to turn down an offer of the best, picks Robert Mapplethorpe.

Mapplethorpe accepts the commission and offers Conde Nast a deal because they have published his studio (photos by the artist, story written by Martin) and have given him other work. He will charge $10,000 for a single image instead of his customary $15,000. The arrangement is that Mapplethorpe will choose that image and will not show the subject-client proofs or contact sheets. OK with Martin. They make a date.

On the appointed day, Martin sees in his morning paper that Sam Wagstaff,  Mapplethorpe’s artistic mentor, benefactor, and longtime lover, has died of AIDS the day before. Martin waits for a phone call cancelling the sitting. When a call doesn’t come he rings the studio. The assistant says there is no cancellation: Come ahead—my boss had to go out but he’ll be back.

Martin is there when the photographer returns, carrying four very large shopping bags whose contents he empties and shows Martin. It is Wagstaff’s famous collection of Aesthetic Movement and Art Deco silver. Included are a chrysanthemum-shaped punch bowl and a large table-center plateau (a tray) ornamented with silver sculptures of polar bears and Eskimos with spears, a piece made to celebrate the purchase of Alaska. Mapplethorpe explains, “I had to get these before Sam’s sister padlocked the apartment.”

Then the photographer motions “Let’s go” to a working corner of the big room and for an hour he takes pictures. The subject is standing against a black background.  A pair of tripod-supported lights about three feet in diameter with an opaque white covering to obscure the bulbs are aimed at him. The two lights are reflected in the subject’s eyes–it is often a mark of Mapplethorpe’s portraiture although he doesn’t always use it. Most photographers prefer a single light source.

The photographs are taken with a minimum of fuss. Many portrait photographers have “hair and make-up” people on the scene to beautify the sitters before and during the session. Many photographers, especially those in the fashion world, sweet-talk the subject throughout the shoot, aiming to relax or stimulate them.  There is no such fussing here.

After Mapplethorpe died of AIDS two years later, Martin learned from his assistant — a onetime member of the House & Garden art department-that there had been at least three contact sheets with a dozen images per sheet. And not long ago Martin also learned that Mapplethorpe charged everyone $10,000 for a portrait and thinks the artist was perhaps currying favor when he told Conde Nast they were getting a special price.


Elaine Greene Weisburg (under her first two names) worked as an editor at Seventeen, Esquire, House & Garden, and House Beautiful, spending two decades each at the latter two publication. Voices helps her keep her hand in.