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Intimate portrait of an iconic photographer

Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures. 
The name Robert Mapplethorpe probably gets most people thinking about New York's bohemian life of the 1970 century, controversies and his homoerotic BDSM photographs that upset the public.



All of this could have been good ingredients in a scandal story, but Bailey and Barbato's new documentary about the artist surprises by being the opposite. The film is a close and complex portrait of Mapplethorpe, and instead of focusing on the controversies surrounding him, the film is about the authentic person he was.

Through interviews (both new and archived), hundreds of photos and dark black-and-white versions of recreated events and situations, the film fills the voids in the collective memories of Mapplethorpe. It shows the story of a boy who became a young man, went to New York and became an epoch-making photographer.

However, the film's narrative is not the usual documentary narrative of a famous person's path to fame – instead, the focus is on Mapplethorp's life, his relationship with other people and his emotional development. As Marcus Leatherdale, a former lover, says in the movie: "The only people he wanted to have in his life were rich people, famous people and people he could have sex with."

Broken the rules. Mapplethorpe photographed wealthy people, famous people, their lovers and themselves – but also flowers and children. And among the rich, famous and his myriad of lovers, Patti Smith smiles with his almost complete absence. Their original romantic relationship that took place in New York in the early years, when they stayed at the Chelsea Hotel and explored the art world, is well known. Patti Smith's award-winning memoir Just kids was released in 2010, and is an honest account of their relationship and how important they were to each other. Yet she is only mentioned so far in the film. In an online interview for Indiewire in April this year, the producers explain that it was not possible to include Smith in the film, and that it also proved to be the best. Not having her included meant that they had to dig deeper, and eventually they also found previously unknown interviews with the artist, material that had disappeared in the archives of the Mapplethorpe Foundation. Through these recordings, it is Mapplethorpe himself who directs the story against what he wanted and what was important to him, and thus shows who he really was.

His controversial photographs were not shocking just then. They are shocking to this day. "I've always been fascinated with bringing sexuality to a level where it has never been before," we hear Mapplethorpe say in the film. And he certainly did. He broke the rules and set the floodlight not only on the gay subculture of the day, but also on photography as great art at a time when photography was viewed as an inferior medium.

His statement was to open up to his sexuality and photograph a lifestyle he knew and lived.

Life and death. In 2011, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Getty Museum received a large portion of Mapplethorpe's photographs, as well as the artist's large archive of secondary material. In the film we see the curators scrutinize and comment on the photographs. This juxtaposition of different worlds – the curators in a contemporary archive that examines his work, set against the interviews and roughness of Mapplethorpe's lifestyle – creates an involuntary but important contrast. His photographs come from a place where a real-life battle unfolds, a battle fueled by his pursuit of fame. They do not belong in what is perceived as a sterile, intellectual environment with typical art specialists who view the same photographs with a conceptual gaze. But then it is in a way exactly where they belong anyway. His photographs are there now, and it is precisely the sign that "Mapplethorpe" has become exactly what he wanted it to be: the name of an iconic photographer.

The photographs can be analyzed from an art historian's point of view, but the essence of Mapplethorpe's work does not actually need much terminology to be understood. All the interpretation needed can be found in his life. He did not photograph with the intention of creating a conceptual statement. His statement was to open up to his sexuality and photograph a lifestyle he knew and lived.

"What was needed to become Robert Mapplethorpe was the same as it was to kill him. And it did, literally, "says Brother Edward in the film. In 1986, at the peak of his career, he was diagnosed with HIV. Over the next three years he became weaker and weaker as he fought against the clock. He died in March 1989, and that same summer began his solo exhibition entitled "Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment" his journey around the United States.

Look at the pictures. "The Perfect Moment" created scandal. The images were perceived as obscene, and raised the issue of public funding for art. This led to the first lawsuit brought against an art museum when the Ohio city of Cincinatti reported its own Contemporary Art Center for Incantation. The title of the documentary is taken from Senator Jesse Helms's outburst during a Senate meeting at the time. The outbreak is posted at both the beginning and the end of the film: "Look at the pictures!" Bailey and Barbato turn up on Helm's disgust and make it a statement of intent. They make you look at the pictures as well as understand them through the eyes of an artist who lived an authentic life and who never intended to please.

The movie can be watched Amazon Prime.

Bianca-Olivia Nita
Bianca-Olivia Nita
Nita is a freelance journalist and critic for Ny Tid.

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