Edward Mapplethorpe is not your typical baby photographer. In fact, he’s not a baby photographer at all—at least not one you’re likely to find on a Pinterest board.
Known for abstract paintings, portraits and nudes (in the vein of his late older brother, Robert), Mapplethorpe never set out to take pictures of infants. But after shooting a commissioned portrait of a one year old in 1995, he felt he’d uncovered something remarkable. Through word of mouth, he began to photograph babies on their first birthdays for the next 20 years.
He’d considered a book, but the timing was never right. Then fate stepped in: The twentieth anniversary of his portraits coincided with the eve of new fatherhood for Mapplethorpe and his wife, Michelle Yun. Now was the time. The result is a stunning collection of 60 portraits for his new book, ONE: Sons and Daughters. An extended deadline even allowed him to include his own son, Harrison, in the lineup of babies, who are captured in black and white, with the same camera and film Mapplethorpe used in 1995.
“I always wanted to keep the integrity of that first picture,” Mapplethorpe tells The Bump , referring to the cover image—a straight-on, unadorned shot of a baby from the torso up, lacking any cutesy props or tropes. The model from that first photo recently celebrated her 21st birthday.
The Bump spoke with the New York-based photographer to talk about the process behind his portraits and how fatherhood has changed his perspective on his young muses.
TB: Why one? What are you trying to say about one year olds?
EM: I didn't really choose that age—it sort of chose me. But once I did the first couple of shoots, I quickly realized this was a very important time in anyone's life. The first birthday is momentous for any parent. After that 12-month period, the personality a child is born with is there—I do believe children are born with personalities, and it really manifests itself at that one-year age. I had photographed children younger than that, and their motor skills are lacking—they're sort of flopping around and not really focused. I found that at 12 months, they just could. They could be inspired, they could be scared, they could be joyful, they could be astounded; whereas younger children, first of all, they can't really sit in the seat. But more important was this idea of personhood and the human aspect of children coming to the forefront. Society hasn't really influenced them and they're not tainted yet. They're still innocent, they're still pure, there's still optimism. You start photographing five or six year olds, and they've been in school. They've been bullied or they're a bully. One year is almost like a clean slate and it's still there. Having a child now of my own and seeing that, you hope they won’t grow up so they can keep that innocence. One is a perfect age.
TB: How did you get infants to sit down for the photograph?
EM: I found a little chair at a flea market, and it was perfect for my purposes in that it had a low back, but was supportive of the bottom half. The low back I wanted because I didn't want the chair in the picture. It allowed me to put this little belt around them to sort of secure them, because of course, the child’s safety is the most important thing—the picture is secondary. How do I get them to sit still? I mean, some of them don't. Some will sit still for the whole session, other ones will sit still for a roll or two. When the flash goes off it’s a big moment because they either get excited by that, or they get frightened by that or they’re curious of it. Sometimes they laugh. I think it sort of freezes them—it does, on the film, literally—but it freezes them in their seat for a little while.
TB: Were you intending to shoot them like adults?
EM: That is absolutely what I was going for. Anybody can do a nice, composed, lit picture. But not everybody can do a really great portrait, which is about the person and getting them to let their guard down, expose a part of their personality and become vulnerable. You look at that portrait and it tells you something about that person. People do wonderful, wonderful pictures of babies, and I commend them for it. I don't think I could, nor do I have the interest in doing what they do.
TB: How do you select the final photo?
EM: My wife can tell you this—I'll sometimes come home say and say, “The child was a difficult one today, and I'm not quite sure whether I have the shot.” And she always makes me feel better and says she’s sure I have it. Then I'll process the film, and there are moments where I'm like, “Wow, I know I was there, because I shot it, but I don't actually remember that moment.” It’s such a pleasurable experience because editing and going through the proofs is a big part of the process for me. Clients do not see anything other than the two final prints that I give them. That’s because I know what I'm looking for and I know what's a good composition. People looking at their own children are looking for different things. They're looking for that cute picture, or that smiley picture. I'm not really looking for that—in fact it's rare that I do choose a "smiley" picture, because most of the time, particularly with 12 month olds, it sort of brings them back to that baby state.
TB: You can’t even tell which is from 1995 and which is from 2016.
EM: That’s the intention. I've had parents come in with different outfits and jewelry. Or the children would have bows in their hair or a certain haircut. Right from the beginning I said no to that. Once you introduce elements like that, you're dating the photo. I say, “You're going to regret it because you’re going to want this to be an heirloom, and you're going to want to pass it down to your child and your child's going to want to pass it down to his children.” It's the timeless quality of these pictures that's going to keep them significant.
TB: How has having a one year old influenced your approach?
EM: It really hasn’t. I go in and know that every child's different and I don't know what to expect. That was the case before I had Harrison and now that I have Harrison. But what has changed is my respect for the people that come in with their child—the parents. My focus is and it always will be on the baby that comes that day. I was always appreciative and enjoyed meeting the parents, but now I'm like, wow, I know exactly what they have gone through the last year with this child.
All photos were originally published in ONE: Sons and Daughters.