Filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato look at the life and work of controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whose work was threatened with censorship both before and after his untimely death at the age of 42.
Robert Mapplethorpe began his photographic career with a Polaroid camera, before moving to more traditional forms of creating his images, and it is for these images that he is most well known. Controversial throughout his life, a year after he died, Mapplethorpe’s work was catapulted into national and international debate, when several members of the US Senate were upset by the BDSM and erotic nature of the exhibition titled Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment.
Although the film is bookended by the censorship debate, Bailey and Barbato try to look at the entire life of Mapplethorpe, and throughout the film it becomes clear that although many of the photographers images were lovely and beautifully shot, Mapplethorpe seems to have been almost gleeful with his production of erotic images. The film interviews many people from Mapplethorpe’s life, including Debbie Harry, family priest George Stack, college friends Fern Logan and Harry McCue, former neighbour at the Chelsea Hotel Sandy Daley, Helen and Brice Marden, artist David Croland, writer Bruce Celacello and family members Harry and Edward Mapplethorpe – father and brother to Robert, respectively. What becomes clear throughout the film is the respect that a lot of people had for Mapplethorpe; how magnetic and engaging he was as a person and his passion for his art. What also becomes clear however, is the fact that Mapplethorpe was entirely self absorbed, selfish, vain and had little time for the people in his life. An audio clip of the artist even states that he believes people are there to be used, as this is what life is about.
Through using interviews with those who found the light of Mapplethorpe’s friendship shone on them throughout their lives, Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures quickly becomes a hagiography, with the only person willing to talk about Mapplethorpe in an unflattering light being his younger brother Edward. Edward was forced to produce his own artwork under the name of Edward Maxey since Robert didn’t want to be outshone by his younger brother, and never got the encouragement he so desperately craved from his brother, even as he cared for Robert in the last days of his life. A slightly different angle on Robert’s story would be one told through Edward’s eyes – who idolised his older brother, and had his heart broken by him – and this could have been a more engaging look at the person behind some of the most shocking photographs of last century.
Of course, Mapplethorpe’s photography is not shocking now, in the age of online porn and dick pics sent through Snapchat – but they are still beautifully shot, however the contrast between Mapplethorpe’s wonderful photography and the dark ego of the man behind them is only sketchily drawn, with Edward Stout – Mapplethorpe’s attorney – stating Mapplethorpe’s question as to whether he will be as rich as Andy Warhol when he dies. Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures suffers from interviewees seemingly not wanting to speak ill of the dead, as well as some show pacing, making the film as vain and self absorbed as Mapplethorpe himself.
In all, fans of Mapplethorpe’s work will surely find plenty to like in this examination of the photographer’s work, but newcomers may well find themselves put off through the picture of the photographer that emerges; one of a selfish and vain man, only interested in fame. The film could have worked better as a documentary about Edward Mapplethorpe, or even as a film about the censorship of Mapplethorpe’s work, but as it stands, Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures is a long winded vanity project that starts well, but runs out of steam. Oh, and Patti Smith – lifelong friend and muse of Mapplethorpe – not being interviewed for the film feels like a glaring omission.