The directors of a new doc on the similarities between Mapplethorpe and Madonna, and why the NY photographer’s work still has the power to shock.
“Look at the pictures,” yelled Senator Jesse Helms, denouncing the controversial art of American artist Robert Mapplethorpe, whose photographs pushed boundaries with frank depictions of nudity, sexuality and fetishism. Mapplethorpe’s final show, The Perfect Moment, self-planned as he was dying of Aids, proved to be a time-bomb, igniting a culture war that still reverberates today.
With unprecedented, unlimited access to his archives and work, Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures does just that , taking an unflinching, unprecedented look at his most provocative work. The only thing more provocative than Mapplethorpe’s photographs was his life. He was obsessed with magic and, in particular, what he saw as the magic of photography and sex. He pursued both with insatiable dedication.
We speak to directors Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey about the divisive artist and their motives for making the movie, with an exclusive clip available to watch below.
Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures premieres Monday, April 4 at 9pm, only on HBO.
What motivated you to make a documentary about Mapplethorpe’s art and life at this moment in time?
Randy Barbato: We initially had some conversations with HBO, who are the co-producers of the film, and his name came up. Fenton and I used to live in NY in the 80s and were very familiar with Mapplethorpe, but we realised that we kind of knew the name but didn’t really know the art or the man. He is well-known for the scandal that happened in the 90s but we know so little about him beyond that. He’s sort of overexposed and underrevealed. So we started doing some research and became more and more obsessed with the art and the man.
The interviews with him are brilliant, he seems so open and so candid. And he says some very striking things – his definition of relationships, for instance. Who did those interviews?
Fenton Bailey: Those come from a dozen different sources. He chose people very cleverly, he befriended a lot of writers and he wanted writers to write about him. He was always giving interviews! And we managed to track down some of them. Most of the time the texts are really old, some of them are decayed, but we found a few good ones from different sources and put them together.
And that’s when we realised: this is how we make the film. It’s Look at the Pictures, his work, and listen to his words. And there you are! It’s extraordinary that so much has been said about Mapplethorpe and so many people told his story and I thought, what about Mapplethorpe himself telling his story? He’s perfectly, incredibly articulate. And just tells it the way it is. And if people are going to judge him for it, he doesn’t care, it’s all hashtag truth.
This is a very endearing aspect of his personality.
Randy Barbato: Yes, it is an endearing aspect and unfortunately a lot of people might not think that way. There are people who think, OMG, how horrible, he seems so selfish, so manipulative, so ambitious.
Like most artists, actually!
Randy Barbato: Yeah, exactly!
Fenton Bailey: Exactly, but most artists don’t admit it because they think it will harm their chances. Or that people will judge them negatively. But Mapplethorpe admitted it. So the film is about him but it’s also a how to guide because Mapplethorpe was very open, he was very competitive, but he wasn’t guarding his secrets. He was very, ‘This is how you do it.’ There’s a great archive we found where he takes a young Dutch artist, Peter Klasvost, who is filming him. So he takes his picture, he shows him his work. You can see, Mapplethorpe wanted others to succeed.
“Madonna especially. I think they are very similar: the Catholic factor, from middle class, their dedication to work ethic, the Blonde Ambition, using your looks to get what you want, being proactive at collaborating with other people to get what you want, not being ashamed about your ambition. I think they are very very similar” – Fenton Bailey