These could form the basis of a scandalous story, but Bailey and Barbato’s new documentary about the artist surprises by depicting the exact opposite. The film is an intimate and complex portrayal of Mapplethorpe, not focused on the controversy around him but rather on the authentic person he was.
Through interviews – both new and archive – hundreds of photos and low key monochrome reenactments, the film fills in the gaps of what the collective mind recalls about Mapplethorpe, and reveals the story of a boy who became a young man, went to New York and became a landmark photographer.
The film’s narrative is not the usual documentary tale of a famous person’s rise to fame; instead it focuses on Mapplethorpe’s life, relationships and intimate development. As Marcus Leatherdalde, a former lover, says in the film, “the only people wanted in his life were rich people, famous people, and people he could have sex with”. Everyone fell into one of these categories, and every person served a means to an end.
I always was fascinated by the idea of taking sexuality and bringing it to a level where it hasn’t been before.
Mapplethorpe photographed wealthy people, famous people, his lovers and himself, but also flowers and children. And among the rich, the famous and his numerous lovers, Patti Smith was an exception. Their initially romantic relationship during their early New York years, co-habiting at the Chelsea Hotel and trying to find their way in the art world is well known. Smith’s award-winning 2010 memoir Just Kids is a candid account of their relationship, and of how important they were for each other. Yet, the film mentions her only briefly. In an online interview for Indiewire this April, the producers explain that having Smith in the film was not possible, something which turned out for the best. Not featuring her meant they had to dig deeper, something which eventually led them to unearthing previously unknown interviews with the artist, lost in the Mapplethorpe Foundation archives. Through those recordings, Mapplethorpe himself guides the focus of the story towards what he wanted and what was important to him, revealing who he really was.
His controversial photos were shocking not only in those days, but remain so to this day. “I always was fascinated by the idea of taking sexuality and bringing it to a level where it hasn’t been before”, we hear Mapplethorpe say in the film. And he certainly did. He broke the rules and put in the spotlight not only the gay subculture of his time, but also photography as high art, during times when photography was considered a lesser medium.
In 2011, LACMA and the Getty acquired a large part of Mapplethorpe’s photographs plus the artist’s vast archive of supporting material, and in the film we see the curators exploring and commenting on the images. This juxtapositioning of worlds – curators in a contemporary archive looking at his work versus the interviews and rawness of Mapplethorpe’s lifestyle – makes for an involuntary yet important contrast. His photographs, coming from a place of real life struggle fueled by his desires and drive for fame seem at odds with what feels like a sterile, intellectual environment with stereotypical art specialists observing them with a conceptual eye. Yet, somehow, they are exactly where they belong. The fact that his photos are there, signifies that Mapplethorpe’s name has become exactly what he wanted: the moniker of an iconic photographer.
The photos can be analysed from an art historian’s point of view, but in fact, the heart of Mapplethorpe’s work does not need much terminology to be understood. All the interpretation needed to understand it can be found in his life because he did not photograph with the purpose of making a conceptual statement. Instead, he made a statement simply by opening the closet of his sexuality and photographing a lifestyle which he knew and lived.
“Whatever it took to become Robert Mapplethorpe is what it was going to take, and it took his life. Literally.” says his brother Edward in the film. In 1986, at the peak of his career, he was diagnosed with HIV and over the next three years, withered away while working against the clock. He died in March 1989, and that summer, his solo exhibition Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment toured the US.
The Perfect Moment caused a scandal. The images were considered obscene and put under the microscope the question of public funding of the arts. It eventually led to the first criminal trial of an art museum when the City of Cincinnati indicted its Contemporary Art Center for obscenity. The directors derived the title of the documentary from US Senator Jesse Helms’ exclamation during a Senate meeting in that period, featured both at the film’s beginning and end. Bailey and Barbato turned Helms’ outraged “look at the pictures” into a statement of purpose. And they do make you look at the pictures, and also understand them through the eyes of an artist who lived an authentic life and whose intention was never to please.