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.