In 1989, on the floor of Congress, Senator Jesse Helms implored America to "Look at the pictures," while denouncing the controversial art of Robert Mapplethorpe, whose photographs pushed social boundaries with their frank depictions of nudity, sexuality and fetishism — and ignited a culture war that rages to this day.
Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures does just that, taking an unflinching, unprecedented look at Robert Mapplethorpe’s most provocative work. From acclaimed filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (Inside Deep Throat; HBO’s Wishful Drinking and The Eyes of Tammy Faye), and produced by Katharina Otto-Bernstein (Absolute Wilson), it is the first feature-length documentary about the artist since his death, and the most comprehensive film on Mapplethorpe ever.
As The J. Paul Getty Museum and The Los Angeles County Museum of Art prepare landmark Mapplethorpe retrospectives (both opening in March 2016), the film goes inside the preparation for the exhibitions as a jumping-off point to tell the complete story of his life and work for the first time, and explore the interplay between his personal and professional lives. Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures reveals a controversial artist who turned contemporary photography into a fine art.
With complete and unprecedented access to The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, the documentary draws upon archival materials and features never-before-seen photographs and footage. “Even his most shocking and forbidden images are included without blurs, without snickers — in other words, exactly as the artist intended,” say Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato. Mapplethorpe himself is a strong presence, telling his story in his own words with complete honesty and often shocking candor through rediscovered audio interviews.
The film follows Mapplethorpe’s early beginnings as a young artist in New York City through his meteoric rise in the art world to his untimely death. In 1963, he enrolled at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he studied drawing, painting and sculpture, and soon met his first girlfriend, Patti Smith, one in a string of profoundly influential lovers. By the late 1960s and early 1970s he was taking Polaroid photographs of friends and acquaintances, and was determined to make it, which meant being recognized as an artist and becoming famous.
Almost all of the people from key relationships in his life are present in the film, including Sam Wagstaff, David Croland, Lisa Lyon, Marcus Leatherdale and Jack Walls. The documentary also features almost 50 original interviews with family, friends, co-workers and colleagues, including Mary Boone, Carolina Herrera, Brooke Shields, Helen and Brice Marden, Fran Lebowitz, Bob Colacello and Debbie Harry.
Rounding out this portrait are the recollections of Mapplethorpe’s older sister, Nancy, and youngest brother, Edward. An artist himself, Edward assisted his brother for many years and was responsible for much of the technical excellence of his photography.
The duality of black-and-white work reverberated in his life. He often mounted two shows simultaneously: An uptown exhibition might include society portraits and delicate flower still-lifes, while his sexually explicit photographs were on view downtown. Mapplethorpe’s most controversial work — which he considered his most important — chronicled the underground BDSM (bondage, dominance and submission, sadomasochism) scene of late 1970s New York City, sparking a national debate over public funding of art some deemed offensive or obscene.
Mapplethorpe was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986, when the illness was still a death sentence. He spent the remainder of his life working more feverishly than ever before, not only pursuing perfection, but also striving to secure his legacy after his death. In 1988, a few months before Mapplethorpe’s passing, The Whitney Museum of American Art mounted his first major American museum retrospective.
The man who lived to be famous became even more famous after he died. Before his death, he designed one final show, The Perfect Moment, which brought images of flowers, S&M pictures and male African-American nudes together in a museum setting for the first time. As he himself predicted, the combination proved to be too much. In 1989, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. canceled The Perfect Moment after Senator Helms took aim at Mapplethorpe. In April of the following year, protests were held when the traveling exhibition arrived at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) in Cincinnati, resulting in obscenity charges against the CAC and its director, Dennis Barrie. After a dramatic court battle, both were ultimately found not guilty.
Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures is a revealing look at one of the most important artists of the 20th century, whose name remains a byword for something illicit, dangerous and dark.
HBO Documentary Films in association with Film Manufacturers Inc. presents a World of Wonder production. Directed and produced by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato; produced by Katharina Otto-Bernstein; produced by Mona Card; associate producer, Jordan Papadopoulos; edited by Langdon F. Page; co-editor, Francy Kachler; original music by David Benjamin Steinberg; directors of photography, Mario Panagiotopoulos and Huy Truong. For HBO: senior producer, Sara Bernstein; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.