• Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures (2016) (Dogwoof)
A highly acclaimed new documentary looks into the life and times of the late American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
By
13 May 2016 - 2:11 PM  UPDATED 13 May 2016 - 2:34 PM

Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato are a dynamic duo of LGBT cinema who dare to go where few filmmakers have gone before – into the mainstream. After a revealing intimate portrait of Chastity Bono’s sex change in Becoming Chaz, and interviewing a gobsmacked Cher about it, they have enjoyed ongoing success with the reality competition series, RuPaul's Drag Race (available at SBS On Demand here).

“Oh he’s now incognito, on holiday in Australia with his Australian partner,” Barbato tells me.

In January the filmmakers unveiled one of the hits of Sundance, Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, that went on to play in Berlin and is a precursor to the massive LACMA-Getty exhibition, organized to celebrate Mapplethorpe’s 70th birthday, that is headed our way next year. 

Like the American photographer, who considered himself an acolyte of Arthur Rimbaud, Fenton and Barbato do not baulk at being provocative. In one of the film’s most hilarious and equally shocking moments they show museum curators fumbling nervously as they flick through his explicit X Portfolio, which Mapplethorpe called “extreme sexuality” and, like all of his photographs, are worth millions.

While naturally presenting the artist’s unique black–and-white style with his intense illumination bathing his subjects in a silvery light, Bailey and Barbato were determined to delve into his motivations. Using rediscovered, unheard interviews, they explore how Mapplethorpe was unabashedly ambitious and the lengths he would go to in order to achieve fame.

Early on he was financially dependent on his wealthy art collector partner, Sam Wagstaff, who died two years before him from a similar AIDS related illness, and has gone down in history as the man whose efforts helped photography enter the mainstream art world. They were no longer lovers once Mapplethorpe achieved the fame he so desired, and it wasn’t as if he was going to share the spoils or any of the credit with his younger brother, Edward, who was very much a collaborator and is interviewed at length in the film.    

How did you choose the people to interview?

Randy Barbato: The interesting thing about Mapplethorpe is that he was not only a singular artist but a serial collaborator. So many of the people in his life were his lovers or writers. It seems like he was on a mission to connect with people who would in one way or another propel his narrative. It was like following the breadcrumbs he left and seeking out the different relationships he had. We actually started with the pictures and then searched out every bit of audiotape we could find and so much of that came from journalists’ old dusty cassette tapes that they didn't even know they had. We pieced that all together, he knew this person, then he slept with this person.

"He was on a mission to connect with people who would in one way or another propel his narrative."

Why isn’t Patti Smith in the film?

Fenton Bailey: You have to ask her. But the main voice in the film is Mapplethorpe’s own voice. There’s 15 minutes of him just talking. We wanted to tell his story and didn’t want any shadow to be cast over it.

And Edward Mapplethorpe?

RB: He’s kind of the heart of the film – and appropriately so. He’s also a pretty great artist who I think did have a serious collaboration and significant impact on Robert’s work and success. Then on top of that he helped us make that connection that humanises Robert in a way that only Edward and his sister Nancy could do.

Was your perception of Mapplethorpe changed through making the film?

FB: Beforehand we were aware of his brand more than we were of his art, which is interesting because part of his significance is that he was one of the first artists who fused the idea of artistry and commercial success and made it kind of ok to be ambitious. But any time we make a film it’s a voyage of discovery. We think we might be taking one story and by the end we’ll have told a different story and that was very much the case here. By the end we were very clear that:

1. Mapplethorpe was a documentarian above anything else, that his art, his photography was a part of it, but everything in his life was a work of art. We realised we were drawn to him because he did what we do.

2. He was completely open and honest about what he was doing. People said he didn't talk about his work and that he wasn’t very articulate, but we found the complete opposite to be true. He was incredibly articulate and direct. He didn't talk a lot because he told you exactly what he was doing in a few sentences.

The intention of the film was to show him the way he showed himself. Some people thought he was a jerk, but we ended up really liking him.

What do you think of his penis obsession in his art?

RB: Well, I can identify with that! But what about the thousands of artists who are obsessed with breasts? I think that we live in a culture that is afraid of penis, so I think it’s great to get some cock out there.

The scene with the museum curators handling his X Portfolio is amusing.

FB: Yes, that’s a funny moment when they’re looking at the unbound linen album where Mapplethorpe is basically sucking off Sam Wagstaff and they've got chains and he’s licking his balls. All that sexuality; it’s so intimate. One of the curators said to me off camera that they didn't think it was appropriate to show that because he felt it was violating Sam Wagstaff’s memory. But I disagree. I think he was all about putting it all out there without shame, without apology, which was ahead of its time. Today I still think we’re taken aback. We show you the X Portfolio to try to show the whole thing from start to finish and I must say sitting there and watching one picture after the next, even though I’d made this film, I was still a bit shocked, partly because the screen was so big. I could sense the tension in the room. So it’s still transgressive, though we did try to make it a bit easier for people.

"I think he was all about putting it all out there without shame, without apology, which was ahead of its time.'

Mapplethorpe died from AIDS on 9 March 1989 at the age of 42. Was it his lifestyle – did he over-do it? Or was he just unlucky?

FB: I really think what Edward says in the film is the truth, that whatever it took, Robert was going to give and it did take his life. So what killed him in the end was what made him. I think the specifics of AIDS are not what killed him. He would not have lived having done what he did.

Something else would have killed him?

FB: Kind of.

Would Robert like that his paintings are now worth so much money?

Edward Mapplethorpe: It’s obvious he’d be loving it.

This is one of the sad commentaries about the whole thing. Brian English, one of the other assistants in his studio, makes a point – and I never had that conversation with Rober – that Robert said how it’s sad how he was making all this money and he was not going to live to enjoy it. Once he was diagnosed there was a big change in the collection of his photographs. Powerful people all of a sudden started coming around. It was disturbing at the time for me because I was working closely with him and I was his brother somewhat trying to protect him. He said he didn't enjoy it but he made sure that he started his foundation and the money has continued to perpetuate his brand after all those years.

Was it painful but also cathartic to do interviews for the film?

EM: It’s both. There was a lot of pain in Robert’s passing and some pain involved with the fact that he didn't support my own career and my own vision – even till his dying day when I was hoping and expecting he would.

It’s part of my reality, it’s part of my person. I’ve talked about it and I continue to talk about it and doing interviews has been a nice way for me to get this off my chest and be open and honest about it. Somebody came up to me at last night’s screening and said, “You know your brother was brutally honest and we can see that you’re just as honest.” That really touched me. It’s been an emotional roller coaster ride.

You breathe life into Robert’s recordings because you worked with him so closely and you were there when he died. You are brothers and that carries such an emotional weight in the film.

EM: From the moment I started working with him I felt very dedicated. I wanted to respect him as a person and as an artist. I could have easily been bitter and angry and talked badly about him, but he’s my brother, he’s a part of me and I want his spirit to live.

You staged his final picture, ‘Self Portrait’. You brought the technical aspect to it because you’re the one with the formal photographic education.

EM: It was an idea that occurred to me after him expressing that he wanted to photograph the skull cane because it was a beautiful object in itself. It was given to him by a close friend, then he made mention of his hand holding the cane and this was too important an opportunity to pass up. I asked Brian to do the Polaroid and he said he’d have to bring it in to show Robert and that wasn't easy because Robert wasn't feeling well. I said, “Lets do this because it’s something you need to do." So he put on a black turtleneck and we had the black background and it was a matter of finding the right combination of light and f-stops to make it ghostly in a way.  

Did you inherit money from Robert?

EM: Yes, there was a will and a number of people got some financial gain from that. I didn’t get a lot but certainly more money than I had ever had at that stage and I appreciated that and used the money as a seed for my own career. (He still does all the prints of Mapplethorpe's work.) In hindsight, I wish I had thought to buy ‘Man in Polyester Suit’, because I don't have any of his photographs. I wasn’t put on the board (of the Mapplethorpe Foundation) either and I didn't quite understand why.

The disturbing thing about the will is that Robert didn't make any mention of our parents and that was another heartbreaking situation that I had to deal with after he passed away. I had to call Mum and Dad and they were elderly, they didn't need it, but he didn't mention my other brother, James, either.

You are straight. Did that put you on the outer with him?

EM: No. I’ve got to say that I feel so secure in my own sexuality that I had no problem being around gay men – and believe me I had ample opportunity! A lot of people were flirting with me and Robert got a kick out of that. (Laughs) To this day I have a lot of friends who are both straight and gay. I’m happily married I have a 20-month old child, so I’m very content. I have a lot of things that Robert never did, so you know, life deals you different cards.

Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures is screening in select cities as part of the Essential Independents: American Cinema, Now festival starting 17 May.

Read more SBS Movies news

RECOMMENDED
Sydney Film Festival: Queer Highlights
We asked the Sydney Film Festival's documentary programmer and festival director for their queer picks at this year's event.
Peggy Guggenheim - Art Addict

A portrait of a patron of the arts extraordinaire who transformed a modest fortune and impeccable taste into one of the premiere collections of twentieth century art.

SBS On Demand: Essential Documentaries
Over 20 of the world's best documentaries have landed at SBS on Demand. Watch them anytime, for free (outside of data charges).