Robert Mapplethorpe (1946 – 1989) wasn’t the easiest of characters. The American photographer challenged conventions and feared no controversy. In the mid-1970s, he acquired a Hasselblad (Mr. Mapplethorpe’s camera) and began taking photographs of artists, composers and socialites. Be became known for his sensitive yet blunt, highly stylized black-and-white photography. His work featured celebrity portraits, male and female nudes, self-portraits and still-life flowers. Now there is an HBO documentary on the “James Dean with a camera.”
Hardly hagiographic, yet HBO wanted a documentary on the matter which debuts on April 4, 2016. Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures (that’s right, a 100% Rotten Tomatoes score) premiered at the Sundance and will be shown in select U.S. cinemas.
Under Mapplethorpe’s lens even flowers revealed an erotic potential, yet it wasn’t flowers that mostly defined him. His photography was without apology and ahead of its time. Even today we’re taken aback, and Mapplethorpe’s acclaim has only grown in the years since his death. This summer a biopic on Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith will begin shooting. Call it a Mapplethorpe revival.
Mapplethorpe and Smith were friends and roommates for many years, with the relationship occasionally becoming romantic and frequently collaborative. Smith chronicled their time together in the 2010 memoir Just Kids, which is currently being adapted into a Showtime series, co-written by Smith.
Mapplethorpe was the type of artist we rarely see anymore. He was one of the most controversial artists of his day, generating the kind of headlines that would make Lady Gaga or a Kardashian salivate. His art was unabashedly homoerotic, and did he best to show the human body as honestly as possible. And he loved to be the talk of town and everyone. Everything was a means to an end to his career.
One of the more important aspects of this documentary is the way the film directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato make sure we really do see the pictures: their compositional mastery, their originality, their beauty. The photos still make people uncomfortable. Watching them together could make friends squirm. But it’s not a very high price to pay for 108 minutes of art and truth.