The new HBO documentary, 'Robert Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures,’ directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, takes you through a thrilling and emotionally charged account of the life of a photographer as obsessed with sex and recognition as he was in mastering his craft.
“Perfection. That’s the Mapplethorpe characteristic,” says Robert Mapplethorpe’s younger brother Edward Maxey as he leans back in his chair, his chin piercing catching the light.
He, along with artist Sandy Daley, singer Debbie Harry and art critic Carol Squiers, are just some of the host of artists and friends interviewed in a compelling new film available to view in cinemas from 22 April.
The film’s directors, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, follow Mapplethorpe’s life from his Catholic childhood upbringing through to his final days in New York, charting how the bisexual man from Queens, NY, became perhaps the most controversial photographer in history.
We begin in Los Angeles, 1989, amid the violent protests provoked by Mapplethorpe’s deeply controversial erotic imagery he displayed at his self-curated final show, The Perfect Moment, at the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
We then cut to the present day, to the serene J. Paul Getty Museum. There, curator Paul Martineau and Britt Salvesen, head of photography and curator at LACMA, delicately unwrap Mapplethorpe’s archived black and white prints in preparation for the two retrospective exhibitions of his life running concurrently until the end of July.
From this point, the story is told chronologically. Each new chapter is illustrated by the memories of an interviewee once close to Mappelthorpe. As they speak, we look down through the lens of the Hasselblad camera as it clicks delightfully, capturing freeze frames of their posed portraits.
For a moment, we look through the eye piece much like Mapplethorpe once did. Their words unravel the duality of his work noted by the curators, which becomes apparent as we move between his intense sexual experiences at the New York underground gay club, Mine Shaft, and his flirtation with the social elite, such as luxury fashion designer Carolina Herrera.
Although her voice is heard, Mapplethorpe’s lover and muse Patti Smith does not physically appear in the film. This is one of many aspects of surprise and suspense played upon by the directors, just as the photographer did with his own work.
Another ex-lover and photographer, Marcus Leatherdale, is confronted with a letter Mapplethorpe wrote describing his growing resentment towards Leatherdale’s success. The moment is raw, with Leatherdale barely disguising the tightness in his throat on hearing the unexpected unkind words.
We pause for some time on Project X; a collection of 13 gelatin silver prints mounted on deep red and black cardboard that make up perhaps the most memorable series of his career.
The camera inspects every print, each individually described by Maxey or a fellow artist. Momentum builds with each image packing a bigger punch, (one depicts a man with his pinkie finger squeezed into the meatus of his penis) and culminates in the iconic devilish self portrait of himself leaning against a wall, his body is contorted to face us with a whip stuffed up his backside.
“You can’t go around exploiting people without being able to exploit yourself,” says Mapplethorpe in a clip from an old interview. His following two projects, Y and Z, encapsulated his other two professional obsessions; flowers and black men.
The documentary comes full circle as we revisit the raging manifestations from the beginning of the film. The opposition to his work, however, is merely mentioned as a formality.
Instead, the film ends on a more honest and brutal note. In 1989, Mapplethorpe was diagnosed with AIDS. We see Mapplethorpe at his “goodbye party”, gaunt and frail. He died at 42.
Aside from telling a gripping story, Bailey and Barbato have succeeded in capturing the overwhelming sense of adoration and emotional paralysis felt by all those who were influenced by Mapplethorpe.
Indeed, whatever your opinion of the photographer, you will be fascinated by his dedication to perfection and conviction of the importance he believed his work carried.
“It took his life to be Robert Mapplethorpe,” concludes Maxey. “Literally.”
Robert Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures is available to view in cinemas from April 22
‘Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium’ is showing at LACMA, 20 March – 31 July, 2016, 5905 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles CA 90036. Learn more here
The second ‘Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium’ is showing at The J. Paul Getty Museum, 15 March – 31 July, 2016, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Lost Angeles, CA 90049-1687. Learn more here