CookiesWe use cookies to make it easier for you to browse our website. If you, as a user, visit our website, it is our understanding that you are granting your consent to the use of cookies. You may obtain more information on cookies and their use hereOK
As a child, Robert Mapplethorpe showed little interest in photography, instead reigning supreme as a pogo stick champion. It would be later in life that his father’s pastime would have a subliminal influence on his artistic pursuits (that said, the subject matter Robert would explore would bear no similarity to that of Mr. Mapplethorpe Sr.’s work). Brought up catholic, during his adult years he would transgress and delve into a world of BDSM and sexual curiosity, both of which he documented through compelling portraiture and astonishing still lifes. During the ‘70s he would have a long term relationship with Patti Smith and form part of Andy Warhol’s social circle while living in New York; the likes of Debbie Harry, Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, Isabella Rosellini, Warhol, William Burroughs and his for-a-time significant other and patron, curator and collector Samuel Wagstaff, are among his most iconic subjects. A new documentary, Mapplethorpe: Look At The Pictures, delves into his mind.

He was a maverick who, despite the undeniable beauty and artistic nature of his work, went on to ruffle some politicians’s feathers in 1989 – the same year he would lose his life to aids. That year, the arrival of his final exhibition, The Perfect Moment, in Washington D.C. caused such a commotion in US Congress that, from then on, a very limited selection from his portfolio would overshadow his vast and incredibly diverse body of work. The reality is that most of those already familiar with Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography are so because of the scandal it caused. And it is that scandal which bookends a new HBO documentary from award-winning director/producer duo Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato.

When Mapplethorpe: Look At The Pictures starts, it’s 1989, we’re in Washington D.C. and we’re listening to North Carolina’s Republican Senator Jesse Helms denounce the explicit nature of Mapplethorpe’s photography (the work was later used as evidence in a trial in which the director of Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Centre was charged with obscenity). What unravels is a just-shy-of-two-hour tale about the man at the centre of it. A man who, rather ironically, was completely unfazed by controversy (unless it resulted in press, be it good or bad), whose work had absolutely no social or political agenda. The story is punctuated by amusing anecdotes –one about a masturbating monkey whose head Mapplethorpe later boiled will likely stick out in viewers’s minds– and elevated by accompanying audio interviews in which the photographer candidly talks about his observations, his desires, his fears and his darkest thoughts. We spoke to Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato about the project’s development, the X portfolio and the integrity in Mapplethorpe’s work.

You’ve worked together for such a long time – were you both on the same page when it came to deciding whether to take on the project at first, or was one of you drawn to it before the other?
Randy: Well, Fenton and I lived in New York in the ‘80s, and we were both very much aware of Mapplethorpe. We knew him more as a brand than because of his work or who he was. We didn’t know him personally, but we were both very interested in him. The project came up because we were talking to HBO, they mentioned his name to us. Fenton and I started doing some digging and we became obsessed.
It was the scandal that brought his name to many people’s attention, and it’s the scandal that the documentary starts and concludes with. When Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures begins, we’re in Washington and we’re listening to Senator Jesse Helms’s comments about the work. The documentary goes full circle, coming back to the same scene at the end, putting it into the context of the exhibition launch. Why?
Randy: Most people know him because of that scandal. For us it was important for it to be part of our story, but we didn’t want it to hijack the story itself. We thought: “You know what? Let’s bookend our film with it.” We wanted to get away from it as quickly as possible and not come back to it until the end of the film.
Fenton: Right, because the trial happened after he passed away, and we were interested in telling the story of Mapplethorpe – his story, his life. The way we cover the scandal is to show how he set it up by planning that final show, The Perfect Moment. He ignited the controversy, which truly wouldn't have been of any interest to Mapplethorpe. He was only interested in it to the extent that it would have propelled his fame and brought more attention to his work. The political ins-and-outs of the controversy, the debate of whether public art can be seen or not, was not something he had an opinion about – really it was outside the scope of the film.

During that process of learning about him and who he was as a person, did your opinion of him change? What did you make of him the more and more your learnt about him?
Randy: Yes, it definitely changed. It was a real journey for us, making this film; a journey of discovery. One of the first things we did was look at all the artwork to better understand his evolution as an artist. We were overwhelmed by the sheer amount of art he produced in the short 42 years that he lived. But also, I think that the more we got to know him we began to admire the brutal honesty in which he lived his life. I think that honesty about his ambition, the honesty about the way he lived his life, about his sexual interests; all of that stuff became very admirable to us. That was our arc, of coming to like and admire who Robert Mapplethorpe was. 
I read a review in which the critic likened the themes Mapplethorpe tackled in his work to those you tackle in yours. Did you feel a connection? Could you relate to what he was trying to do in any way?
Randy: Well, neither of us have really done that bullwhip self-portrait yet! I think we really did feel a connection to him. He’s someone who seemed like an outsider, someone who seemed misunderstood. I think most of our subjects that we make films about we feel a connection to. With Mapplethorpe, it took us a while to discover that connection. With Tammy Faye, with Rupaul, with Monica Lewinsky, these are people with whom we understand our connection from the get-go. With Mapplethorpe, it was really a journey of discovery that led us to realise and appreciate the things we had in common.
“I hope this film inspires people. Mapplethorpe dedicated himself to his work and vision with honesty and openness. He lived his life fully.”
You feature around 500 photographs in the film. What access did you have to the archive and how did you whittle down the selection to the edit you chose?
Fenton: Well he did have a huge body of work... I think it’s over 40,000, so it was impossible to show them all. But the foundation that controls the copyright to all of his work gave us complete access. We really tried to be guided about what Mapplethorpe himself said about his work, that really informed our choices. Even though he took relatively few sexually explicit photos, he said that they were really the most important pictures he took, so we spent time examining them. It was interesting to study to those. They were the pictures that caused so much controversy. You see at the end of the film, we show every single image – all 127 images that were in The Perfect Moment show. Of course, what happened was, in the trial they only ever let the jury look at seven pictures that were on trial for obscenity. They sort of cherry-picked from the body of work a few to focus on. We thought it was important to understand why those images were created and how they were created in order to fully understand what they meant.
What image do you want viewers to have of Mapplethorpe as a person after watching the film?
Fenton: I hope it’s a film that inspires people. What Mapplethorpe did with great honesty and openness is dedicate himself to his work and his vision. He lived his life fully. I think to some extent that’s an inspirational message and one that hopefully touches those people who watch the film. Then they can go away feeling empowered to do whatever it is they want to do or be whoever they want to be. In many respects, Randy and I came away feeling he was a very moral person, because he had such integrity. His work and his life were very much cut from the same cloth, which was about being open and authentic. I think that’s a very positive message.
Randy: We didn’t design the film to shock. But we were inspired by him and his work in how we approached making the film. In many ways we wanted the film to be as provocative as his work – we hope it inspires young artists, but also provokes people to think more about art and sex. Why is it that this work makes some people feel incredibly uncomfortable? What is it about our attitudes towards sex and sexuality? How do we live in a culture so obsessed by sex but yet we still have a hard time integrating it into our lives in ordinary ways?

Do you think his work still shocks people?
Fenton: It depends what you mean by shock. There’s Jesse Helms shocked, and then there’s a different kind of shocked, which is seeing something you haven’t seen before that makes you look at it in a different way. I’m not sure that people are necessarily shocked when they see the film. We show the X portfolio –all 13 pictures– and most people who see the film have never seen the series. To see the entire portfolio as it was originally created is shocking, not in a Jesse Helms sense of being repulsive, but in the sense of appreciating that it’s breathtaking, right? What do you think?
I agree, I think people have a real appreciation for it. We talk about how we’ve become desensitised to explicit imagery these days, we’ve come to accept it and see it as beautiful.
Fenton: I think we are desensitised to explicit imagery, which is a good thing because it allows us to now appreciate his work, and see the beauty and creativity of it.

Eloise Edgington
The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

ic_eye_openCreated with Sketch.See commentsClose comments
0 resultados