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Robert Mapplethorpe's emergence in New York in the 1970s coincided with two simultaneous, but unrelated events that would prove essential for his subsequent career: the rise of a market for photography as a fine art and the explosion of punk and gay cultures. Originally trained in painting and sculpture, Mapplethorpe gravitated toward photography, first making erotic collages in 1969–70 with images cut from magazines, then creating his own photographs using a Polaroid camera. Within a few years he was exhibiting erotic male and female nudes, still lifes of flowers, and celebrity portraits, all made with a large-format camera. By the late 1970s his work had developed into its mature style—elegant, minimal black-and-white compositions carefully staged and lit in the studio, and often characterized by the explicit homoerotic themes for which the artist would eventually gain notoriety. Mapplethorpe's photographs reflect his intense interest in and knowledge of the history of Western art. The rigorous formal language employed in all of his pictures reveals a search for idealized form that developed from a variety of influences, including classical sculpture and the work of photographer Edward Weston.
Mapplethorpe frequently made portraits of children. The offspring of friends and society figures whom he also photographed, Mapplethorpe's child models appear variously clothed (as in Lindsay Key) and nude. In two early portraits from 1976 Jesse McBride and Rosie, his young subjects are sympathetically captured in natural, nonstudio environments and in poses that appear relatively spontaneous: five-year-old Jesse is perched nude atop an armchair in his mother's SoHo apartment, while three-year-old Rosie sits on an ornate garden bench, a propped-up knee inadvertently revealing her lack of underpants. Both children innocently face the camera without being self-conscious about their nudity. Most of Mapplethorpe's portraits of children were made within the more controlled conditions of the studio, stripped of settings and props and rendered in a rich palette of blacks, whites, and grays. Unlike his eroticized male nudes, the photographer's images of children are never cropped, nor are sections of their body blown up into fetishistic details. Their bodies are aestheticized, but not as sexual beings; rather, in works such as Melia Marden (1983) and Eva Amurri (1988), they resemble the eternally childish putti of classical and Renaissance art.