The iconic photographer’s old studio manager, Suzanne Donaldson, remembers his final years: ‘It wasn’t like he was gathering followers. He was trying to express himself.’

The iconic photographer’s old studio manager, Suzanne Donaldson, remembers his final years: ‘It wasn’t like he was gathering followers. He was trying to express himself.’

Back in 1986, at the very beginning of her career, Suzanne Donaldson was working in the art department at Vanity Fair. Just 24 years old, her dream was to be a photo editor, and she was thrilled to learn of an opening in the photo department under Elisabeth Biondi.

“My boss didn’t want me to go,” Donaldson recalls. “She very snarkily said, ‘With your interest in photography, I don’t know why you don’t go work for Mapplethorpe, Horst, or Avedon?’”

The forces of fate must have heard the crack, for not long thereafter Donaldson learned that Robert Mapplethorpe was looking for someone to manage his Manhattan studio.

“I was lucky enough to have an interview with him,” she says. “It was an epic time in New York. It was the beginning of the AIDS crisis. He was diagnosed at that point. Everybody was wary of toilet seats, shaking somebody’s hand, kissing them — it wasn’t known how it was contracted.”

Robert Mapplethorpe.
Untitled (Self Portrait), 1973. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

“It was the last six months of his life. He was 42 years old when he died, and it resonated with me. To go sit with Robert and hearing him talk about all the work he wanted to do, never once mentioning he was sick… I was with him for the last three years.”

As studio manager, Donaldson was involved in all aspects of his Mapplethorpe’s career, and is one of the few who had the rare privilege of working with him on both sides of the camera.

“Robert was an amazing human being,” she remembers. “It was very meditative to watch him shoot. He would deliberate over what was the composition. He knew what he wanted when we were on set. After watching him shoot for so long, to be the one who was in front of the camera was powerful – just to know what goes into the making of a photograph.”

Robert Mapplethorpe.
Ajitto, 1981.
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

“I had a friend come do my hair and makeup, which turned out to be a bit wild and crazy. We did one where I’m wearing this incredible black suede dress from A.P.C. that he had given me. We did another where I’m topless and I can’t remember how I got that way.”

Now, 30 years after his untimely death at the age of 42, Mapplethorpe is being celebrated in exhibitions around the world, including Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now and The Sensitive Lens.

“He was the recorder of those very private things that was going on and making them public,” Donaldson says. “Whereas now, when you think about porn and everything that is voyeuristic and explosive, Robert did it, in a funny way, on the DL. It wasn’t like he was gathering followers. He was trying to express himself through photography – that was his medium.”

Robert Mapplethorpe.
Lisa Lyon, 1982. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Robert Mapplethorpe.
Louise Bourgeois, 1982. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Robert Mapplethorpe.
Self Portrait, 1980. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Robert Mapplethorpe
Marcus Leatherdale, 1978

Robert Mapplethorpe. Phillip Prioleau, 1982

Robert Mapplethorpe.
Patti Smith, 1976.
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now is on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Part one: January 25 – July 10, 2019. Part two: July 24, 2019 – January 5, 2020.

The Sensitive Lens is on view at The Gallerie Nazionali di Arte Antica at Galleria Corsini in Rome through June 30, 2019.

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