By Gregory Crofton
Robert Mapplethorpe was determined to become a famous artist. He wanted fame as badly as Andy Warhol did. Both men achieved their goal, but while Warhol has reputation that seems to grow in stature ever year, Mapplethorpe has remained more controversial.
One of the main purposes of MAPPLETHORPE: LOOK AT THE PICTURES, co-directed by Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, whose past doc credits include INSIDE DEEP THROAT and BECOMING CHAZ, is to clearly state that Mapplethorpe’s work is now very much considered fine art by the best museums in the world.
The nearly two-hour documentary features dozens of Mapplethorpe’s photos, including his most well known, and contains revealing and very intimate interviews of many of his boyfriends. Mapplethorpe remains a controversial photographer because his work is still considered by some to be pornographic because much of it features sexual images and male nudes.
When Mapplethorpe first moved to downtown New York City he dated and lived with Patti Smith, a poet and future rock star. He eventually left behind bisexuality and had many male lovers and boyfriends. The most notable was Sam Wagstaff, a rich art collector whom Mapplethorpe turned on to photography.
In fact, championing photography as fine art was one of Mapplethorpe’s major accomplishments because in the late 60s and 70s it was not seen in that light. Mapplethorpe only came to find photography as an his primary art after he began making collages from cut from gay porno magazines.
AIDS killed Mapplethorpe just as his career started to bring him a lot of money and attention. It also took the life of Wagstaff.
“I want to see the devil in us all, that’s my real turn on,” Mapplethorpe wrote to his lover, Jack Fritscher, editor of the pornographic publication, Drummer Magazine. “I have to say it because nobody will say it. And it’s not to put him down, but it’s simply to reveal Robert. Satan to him was not this evil monster. Satan was like this convivial playmate … have a jolly good time seducing the maidens. For me it was a bridge too far.”
Was Mapplethorpe the devil’s minion who pushed the people far into the black for only his gain? Or was he a brave artist who captured truth and beauty with his camera? The directors of this documentary make you decide for yourself, because they don’t let you look away.
MAPPLETHORPE: LOOK AT THE PICTURES is available now on HBO.