Look at the pictures

The only thing more outrageous than Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs was his life. He was obsessed with magic and in particular, with what he saw as the magic of photography and the magic of sex. He pursued both with insatiable dedication.

“Look at the Pictures.” with these words, Jesse Helms denounced the work of Robert Mapplethorpe. Twenty-five years later, the first and most complete documentary about the artist since his death, by acclaimed directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, does just that, with unprecedented unlimited access to his archives and work.  

I first discovered Robert Mapplethorpe in a small room in a gallery in Edinburgh. I was probably about 14. From my recollection i had gone to see the Tracey Emin retrospective (more on that another time). whilst my mother was off delighting over Emin's embroidery and drawings of birds - the more innocent side to her work, my father and I stumbled across a side room in which we a lot of large black and white photographs. Going pink with embarrassment as you do when you 14, confronted with sex and standing next to one of your parents, we quickly whizzed round the room. Not wanting to run out immediately... but I could sense my father’s horror at what I was looking at. I just remember the beauty of the images. The image which sticks in my mind most was this photo of Ken Moody and Robert Sherman.

Last night I went to see Look at the Pictures at the Ritzy in Brixton. Again I saw this stunning image of Moody and Sherman, and as the two men were interviewed I laughed at their honesty. Robert wasn’t interested in philosophical or social commentary. There was no other reason for this image other than it just looked good and felt right.

When I read Patti Smith’s Just Kids, I remember Mapplethorpe as a softer character. A whimsical man who pursued his deepest wants and needs – for want of a less fluffy description. The film… it portrayed a harsher character, but there was a rawness to him – perhaps even slightly aggressive in his thirst for the top. His past lovers, friends, neighbours and patrons all highlighted his beauty and charm which clearly meant he got away with a lot.

What I found deeply touching were the recollections of his older sister Nancy and youngest brother Edward. A photographer in his own right, Edward worked as Robert's assistant for many years and was responsible for much of the technical excellence of the work. At the end of the film, towards Robert’s looming death, Edward weeps in to the camera explaining how nearing death, he always hoped that Robert might give him some pep-talk – tell him how to do good work.. To…’follow his dreams’. It never came. The film portrayed a side of Robert that was deeply competitive. He couldn't bear the idea of Edward riding on his fame – despite being accomplished in his own right. This trend ran throughout his life.

The film visits Roberts most controversial works.

The most prominent voice in the documentary is Mapplethorpe's own. Thanks to a number of rediscovered interviews, he is our narrator. Completely candid, shockingly honest, he speaks about his life, loves, and work. Seen through his eyes, they were a seamless whole, a complete work of art. The result is a portrait of the artist who dedicated his life not only to becoming an artist but also to making his chosen medium, photography, respected and valued as a fine art. And he succeeded; his 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. And since his death, his foundation, worth hundreds of millions, has made multi-million dollar gifts enabling museums from the guggenheim to the getty to set up and maintain photography collections. 


DIRECTOR Fenton Bailey / Randy Barbato


PRODUCER Fenton Bailey / Randy Barbato / Katharina Otto-Bernstein / Mona Card

CINEMATOGRAPHER Huy Truong / Mario Panagiotopoulos

EDITOR Langdon F. Page

COMPOSER David Benjamin Steinberg


CO EDITOR Francy Kachler

ASSOCIATE PRODUCER Kathrin Lohmann / Jordan Papadopoulos

RESEARCHER Oleg Dubson / Joseph Ruscitto

Kate WoodsComment