Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures
Fenton Bailey & Randy Barbato
108 mins; B&W/colour; 2016
World of Wonder Productions in association with HBO Films
It’s not much of a surprise to learn that a famous artist has an ego. With the number of people out there trying to make a living off their words and images, it takes a particular kind of confidence to decide that you deserve to be a successful artist. So it stands to reason that, while watching Mapplethorpe: Look At the Pictures, the subject of the film turns out to be someone who used his art as a way to turn himself into a figure of myth. Almost thirty years after his death, his work is still discussed and, with an archive considered to be worth almost $40 million, is still successful. It makes one wonder if the furor that continues around Mapplethorpe is the pictures, the personality, or, as I suspect, a combination of both.
These are questions that Bailey and Barbato actually don’t answer, opting instead for a typical birth-life-death formula common to HBO biographies. In choosing not to investigate why Mapplethorpe was the promoter of his own mythology, Bailey and Barbato are always at the beginning of a movie and never quite get to the end: sure, we look at the pictures, but what do we see in them? We don’t get to know Mapplethorpe very well by the end of this film, and the directors are possibly not aware that their subject, who is described by lover and colleague Marcus Leatherdale as “a satyr, a mythological creature”, might have liked that.
As famous as he was in life, Mapplethorpe was even more controversial in death, his notoriety reaching its peak with a posthumous traveling exhibition that landed Cincinnati’s Contemporary Art Museum in court on obscenity charges, a situation used as a bookend here. (This story is covered quite impressively in the Golden Globe-winning television film Dirty Pictures by Frank Pierson, starring James Woods as CAM’s director Dennis Barrie and the always captivating Diana Scarwid as his wife Dianne; her reaction to seeing one of Mapplethorpe’s pictures is one of my favourite memories associated with the artist.) We then move to the calm and much more intellectually gratifying world of art curators and collectors, learning that now, in less controversial times, the Getty and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art have teamed up to do two concurrent exhibits of Mapplethorpe’s photography. You might think that the man who got a great deal of inspiration for his work in the seedy underbelly of New York’s sex-club society would hate being discussed and appreciated by the lofty capitalists of the art world, but we later learn that he was as comfortable (and desired) among the establishment as he was by the bohemian denizens around his famous Bond street loft.
Next, we go back to Mapplethorpe’s childhood neighbourhood and meet his family: his sister Nancy Rooney is on hand to talk to the camera while his father narrates information from footage used in a previous documentary program. At this point, you realize that Bailey and Barbato are not going to rewrite the book on non-fiction film (talking heads, file footage, examples of the art and all of it moving at a healthy clip). If you enjoyed Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel, you’ll enjoy this slightly less. If you’re hoping for the personal touch of Jacob Bernstein’s film about his mother Nora Ephron, Everything Is Copy, you won’t find much here.
It was while studying at Pratt (with dubious success) that Mapplethorpe met Patti Smith, another larger-than-life figure, the two of them making for a gorgeous portrait of shared androgyny, ensuring their place in 60s bohemian culture by moving into the Chelsea Hotel (clips from Albert Scopin’s film help fill this period out). From here, the narrative takes off towards his eventual fame and there are a great many voices that fill in the gaps with their impressions. Former Chelsea neighbour Sandy Daley’s appearance here is one of the film’s delights: looking fantastic and gazing back at the past with great affection and warmth, Daley knew Mapplethorpe before his famous persona had gelled and reveals a man hungering for success. Was he ambitious? “There is no word for it…that is an understatement,” she tells us. Edward Mapplethorpe, Robert’s younger brother , pursued a photographic career and was asked by his elder sibling to change his last name; regardless, Edward still conveys hero worship when talking about even the hardest aspects of their relationship. David Croland, a former model whose relentless personality was something to deal with then and now, provides several memorable moments. Dressed only in a robe (meant as a tribute to his deceased friend), he delivers his memories in a deliciously humble-bragging manner (he was photographed by the greats, but he feels it’s not necessary to drop names). Friends and lovers who knew him talk a great deal of the impression Mapplethorpe made at first glance: a tall, angular beauty with angelic eyes but a haunted air. “A ruined cupid,” says Fran Liebowitz, who knew him as a fellow patron at Max’s Kansas City, and “he was very reliant on his charm.”
Mapplethorpe’s early work was collages of images from gay porn magazines before his interest in photography coincided with meeting Sam Wagstaff, a wealthy photographer and curator who became Mapplethorpe’s lover, patron and general cornerstone. He bought Mapplethorpe a camera and a loft on Bond street, but it’s not enough to say that it was the relationship of a keeper and his kept man. Their relationship was a symbiosis in many ways and one of the main reasons Mapplethorpe flourished. Photographs that the subject took of the two of them in explicit sexual poses reveal a kind of joy and fearlessness that isn’t as prevalent in the later, more serious, posed images that seek to turn male body parts into titanic figures carved out of the earth. The loft was in a neighbourhood that in the 1970s felt like the trash end of civilization, but it was there that Mapplethorpe began an impressive photography collection that eventually turned into practising the craft himself in his own apartment. We get the appearance of neighbours Helen and Bruce Marden, Joelle Shefts and gallery owner Mary Boone to tell us all about it.
In 1977, Mapplethorpe had two shows simultaneously: one at Holly Solomon’s gallery (“a very nice woman” with “very vulgar taste”) and, because Solomon wouldn’t show his racier S&M photos in her gallery, at another further downtown for the more adventurous crowd. Famous portraits followed: Debbie Harry, Donald Sutherland, Annie Liebovitz. Robert hires staff when his career takes off and the assistants he chose are, this many years later, thorough charmers who deserve to be the subject of their own film, Suzanne Donaldson and Tina Summerlin.
In the 80s, Lisa Lyon, the world’s first female bodybuilding champion, becomes Mapplethorpe’s muse in a series of photographs exploring women’s physicality in a way that was not as successful as his studies of men: “What had seen daring when he did it with men looked very retrograde when he did it with a woman who was dressing up in different hats and garments,” says critic Carol Squiers. “I wrote about that and he was furious. I think he called me and yelled at me.”
Two-thirds in and all these talking heads make for a somewhat tiresome experience that treats the work and its process as window dressing. A great deal of his work has fascinating sources of inspiration that would be worth exploring further: Drummer editor Jack Fritscher talks a great deal about the Catholic martyr imagery being the basis of Mapplethorpe’s S&M photography, while his later fixation on photographing Black men and exploring a kind of intense masculinity through them possibly another way to distance the viewer from whatever vulnerability he seemed to use his work to cover. Then. there’s the attention to detail itself, which we find out was the result of hours of work and sweat. Peter Berlin, the famously beautiful model who is not in any way sorry to look back at his glory days and plainly states that “my ambition was to get laid, Robert’s ambition was to be a great photographer.” The men who modeled for him relate his instructions, portraying a taskmaster who worked hard at the perfect image. “Sometimes he would just sit and retouch for a day, just to take out all the flaws,” says Tom Baril, who worked as his printer.
Mapplethorpe was given a retrospective at the Whitney in 1988 at the age of 41, a year after Wagstaff’s death from AIDS and two years after Mapplethorpe’s own diagnosis. The Whitney show was a great honour, but Mapplethorpe was upset that he was seen in his condition, what photographer Jonathan Becker called “a memorial with a living corpse” (Donaldson and Summerlin express regret that the Vanity Fair article later treated it like a memorial, and not a celebration of his work). Mapplethorpe’s sister calls it his “proudest day”, while gallery owner Howard Read remembers telling him that it was a show everyone would see; yes, Mapplethorpe responded, but “will anyone write about it?”
Perhaps he only cared about attention and left the complex interpretations to others. Robert Sherman and Ken Moody, subjects of his one of his most famous photos, remark on the amount of philosophical theorizing that has been placed on an image that was actually created out of practical limitations: Moody’s neck wasn’t long enough to go over Sherman’s shoulder so he took the background position. Maybe for him, it was only ever about the aesthetic properties of the image.
In the end Mapplethorpe even made sure to exit in style, giving a “going away” party before his death on March 9, 1989 at the age of 42. Before dying, he told Croland, “I want you to tell [biographer Patricia Morrisroe] everything. Keep me alive.” This solid, reliable film tells you a great deal about Mapplethorpe, but doesn’t make you feel like you know the real him. He probably wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Bil Antoniou is a playwright and film critic whose reviews can be found at myoldaddiction.com. He is co-host of the podcast BGM: Bad Gay Movies/Bitchy Gay Men, which is available on iTunes. He is currently working on his fourth play.