Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation Sued For $45m Over Disputed Drag Self Portraits

Bobby Miller the cult photographer and poet has filed a $65 million claim against the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, as well as several of Mapplethorpe’s dealers  galleries and museums. The case involves work from an iconic series of drag ‘self-portraits’. This comes at a time when Mapplethorpe has just opened his largest retrospective exhibition ever in Los Angeles at the Getty Museum and Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). 

The case centers around works created in the late seventies. Miller claims he  took several of the photos of the artist that are in question. Michael Ward Stout, president of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation’s board of directors, stated that “Our position is that it is a frivolous claim. “In the history of photography there are many artists who created self portraits and by the physical nature of the setting, they very often wouldn’t be able to click their own shutter,” Stout allowed, insisting “they’re clearly Mapplethorpe works.”

 Miller states that he convinced Mapplethorpe to be the subject in the session and that he created the makeup, lighting as well as took the actual photographs. Mapplethorpe offered to have his assistant develop the images for Miller and they remained in the Mapplethorpe archive long after his death from AIDS in the 1980s.

The case claims that Mapplethorpe never gave the images back, and when he died in 1989 tand ended up in the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation archives. The foundation is accused of reproduced and displaying to the public images over the last three years. The complaint states that the Mapplethorpe Foundation, “has misrepresented and continues to misrepresent the Miller Images to be the work of Robert Mapplethorpe as ‘self-portraits.'”

The foundation’s position remains that because the photos were printed in Mapplethorpe’s studio the artist issued three as limited edition prints in 1980. “They’ve subsequently been published in the catalogue raissone and in every book on the artist.

The court papers accuses the foundation of infringement of Miller’s “exclusive rights” to the images. The case also names Sean Kelly Gallery, Skarstedt Gallery, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and the Whitney Museum of American Art in the proceedings. Miller stands by that four New York-based institutions are guilty of exhibition his photographs of Mapplethorpe without securing his permission.

Miller is seeking $45 million from the Mapplethorpe Foundation alone, and another $20 million from museums and galleries that have exhibited his work. He is also demanding exclusive rights to the use of the images.

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