See Babies Photographed With Quiet Dignity

Edward Mapplethorpe’s Saturday, September 3, 2005; 2:45pm. Photo: Edward Mapplethorpe

Edward Mapplethorpe has a vast body of work — mostly photography, but also drawings — which are stark and striking. A lifelong resident of New York City, and the younger brother of iconic photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, his work is often gritty and unforgiving, his human subjects uniformly beautiful. But for the past 20 years,* he has also quietly become a sought-after photographer of small children: Specifically, he shoots portraits of babies on the occasion of their first birthday.

Collected for the first time in his new book, One, Edward Mapplethorpe’s photographs of babies on the cusp of becoming children treat the subject matter with a dignity and respect not often found in portraiture of small children. The Cut spoke with Mapplethorpe about the publication of One and on the experience of becoming a father for the first time 18 months ago.

When you photographed the first child in 1995, there were no cell phones or digital cameras. Children now are so well documented. How does that change things for you?

Often a client or a parent will call me and say, “You know I’m sure they’ll be really good because we’ve taken so many pictures and they’re so used to having their picture taken.” I sort of giggle at it, because they don’t realize that the manner or the approach or the process I go to to get these photographs is well beyond what the child is used to. The fact that they have cell phones and digital cameras pointed at them all the time really has shown little difference, I think, from my perspective, on the way the children react when they come to the studio. Because it’s a unique surrounding. It’s a surrounding that makes them wide-eyed and curious, and I put them in a little seat and there’s a strobe and there’s a camera on a tripod, which they’re probably not used to.

How is it different taking a portrait of a baby than it is of an older child or an adult?

There’s very little negotiation that can be done with a 1-year-old. I explain this to parents before they come. We have to accept the child the way they are that day. If they come and they’re not particularly happy and I get a really interesting picture of them with tears in their eyes or a frown or something like that, then so be it. I’m not out to do cute pictures of babies. There are many, many people that have studios that do that and they do that well. I admire that. But I have no real interest in that. So I put the child in a situation that’s new and fresh to them, and it’s really the flash. It’s the strobe when it goes off. That’s the window into their personality. An adult who comes and I do their portrait, I think they’re probably aware of the situation that they’re probably walking into, and they’re a lot more self-conscious. That’s another thing that I don’t have to worry about with children so much. So there is a big, distinct difference between a child in front of my camera and an older child or an adult.

Do you find that certain times of day are better for them?

Whenever I have a client I tell them I keep blocked the whole day off for that child. So I say, “You tell me. Every child’s different. Do you need his afternoon nap? Is he best after that? We’ll do it in the early afternoon. Is he best before his nap? Come in at eleven.” I feel obligated, because I know — especially now having a child — that perhaps your child didn’t have a good night the night before.

Would you say that some kids are just naturally better at doing this than others?

Certainly. I mean, everybody’s got a different personality. And some people are shy and some people are extroverts and other are introverts. I think there are children that have a comfort level that other children don’t. And more times than not, I do the film and I’ll say to my wife, “Yeah, this baby wasn’t great. I’m not sure whether I got anything,” and she’s always like, “I’m sure you got it.” Then I do the film and I look at the contacts and I’m going through and editing and I’m like, Oh my god! I sometimes … it’s a strange emotion, but I’m like, I almost feel like I wasn’t there. I’m like, That kid was much better than I remember.

The most commonly asked question of mothers who make art is “How do you balance your creative life with being a mother?” So for you: How do you balance your creative life with being a father?

It is a juggle. It’s a balance is a good word for it, because no one has the time that they used to have to put to their career, to their work. Whether you have a job, a nine-to-five job, or a job like my wife — she’s a curator who, believe me, it’s not a nine-to-five job. Or you work for yourself like I do. I mean, we put our son in day care. He’s learning to socialize and make friends at a very early age.

So I have my day. I’m almost more of a nine-to-five sort of guy now, because we get up together, all three of us, and we get him ready, we get him to day care, and then I’m back here. I work, work, work, work, work. And I’ve always been the type that, come six o clock, I’m just sort of spent. It’s my internal mechanism. So I put my attention to my work all day long until he’s home and then I turn that off.

*This post has been corrected to show that Edward Mapplethorpe has photographed babies for 20 years.