Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures



The life and work of the gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe receive equal attention in this detailed documentary.


Mapplethorpe -Look at the Pictures


The title of this documentary feature by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato is borrowed from the outraged comments of Jesse Helms in 1989. Helms was a homophobic senator whose phrase ‘look at the pictures’ was an invitation to find Mapplethorpe’s work obscene. However, the film’s comparative request to view them is made in the expectation that what not so long ago led to court action will today be seen as art rather than pornography (except perhaps by those who, uninterested in art and taking a different view, might wish to defend pornography for its own sake).


Bailey and Barbato largely present Mapplethorpe’s life story in chronological sequence although, by preceding it with footage about two concurrent prestigious gallery exhibitions in hand at the time of the filming, they at once establish Mapplethorpe as a maligned artist who, living from 1946 to 1989 when he died of Aids, was the victim of the censorship of his day A quarter of a century on we can be shown how this highly promiscuous gay man did indeed photograph the things that meant most to him in life. If flower studies often featured, so too did a late obsession with African Americans while naked men were central, not excluding images of sado-masochism and an emphasis on erect penises. This film does, in fact, represent very clearly where censorship stands in this area today: no images appear to have been banned but the film has an ‘18’ certificate.


Lasting some 108 minutes, this is a thorough piece of work which features comments from the forthright artist himself plus much telling new interview footage from among others Robert’s younger brother, Edward, and his sister, Nancy Rooney. We learn of Mapplethorpe’s early relationship with Patti Smith, something of a kindred spirit, and many of his subsequent (male) lovers add their comments. The extent to which over the years Mapplethorpe’s work led to photography being taken more seriously as an art form is brought out, but if the telling of the life story was intended to humanise Helms’s monster it has to be said that Mapplethorpe does not emerge as an endearing figure. He may have had charisma but his treatment of others would appear to confirm that his career came first at all times: indeed, his fellow photographer and one-time lover Marcus Leatherdalde suggests that everything with him was a means to an end. As others confirm, Mapplethorpe was driven by his huge ambition. Justifying his darker pictures, he once said that he wanted to see the devil in us all: he may have thought of Satan as a convivial playmate, but this film certainly reveals the real devil in Robert Mapplethorpe.




Featuring Edward Mapplethorpe, Nancy Rooney, Marcus Leatherdalde, Jack Walls, Jack Frischer, Ken Moody, Debbie Harry, Brooke Shields, Sandy Daley, Fran Lebowitz.


Dir Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, Pro Fenton Bailey, Barbato, Katharina Otto-Bernstein and Mona Card, Ph Huy Truong and Mario Panagiotopoulos,  Art Dir James McGowan, Ed Langdon F. Page and Francy Kachler, Music David Benjamin Steinberg.

Film Manufacturers Inc/HBO Documentary Films/a World of Wonder production-Dogwoof.
108 mins. USA. 2016. Rel: 22 April 2016. Cert. 18.