Online Extra: Sampler: Mapplethorpe documentary examines controversial work

  • by Seth Hemmelgarn
  • Wednesday April 6, 2016
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A documentary examining the life and work of controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe debuted Monday night on HBO.

Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures takes its title from anti-gay Republican Senator Jesse Helms, who in denouncing Mapplethorpe in the 1980s urged people to "Look at the pictures."

Known for photos showing nudity and fetishism, Mapplethorpe died from AIDS-related complications in 1989, just three years after he was diagnosed.

The film, the first feature-length documentary about him since he died, looks at preparations for exhibits at the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and tells Mapplethorpe's life story.

"Even his most shocking and forbidden images are included without blurs, without snickers �" in other words, exactly as the artist intended," Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, who produced and directed the movie, said in a news release. The documentary includes audio interviews in which the artist shares his life "with complete honesty and often shocking candor," filmmakers said.

Mapplethorpe started out in New York City and, early in his career, lived with rock icon Patti Smith. The film features interviews with family and friends and celebrities like writer Fran Lebowitz and Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry.

Some of Mapplethorpe's best-known work revolved around New York's BDSM scene of the late 1970s.

After being diagnosed with AIDS in 1986 �" a time when such a diagnosis meant certain death �" Mapplethorpe "spent the remainder of his life working more feverishly than ever before, not only pursuing perfection, but also striving to secure his legacy after his death," the filmmakers said.

Before he died, he designed "The Perfect Moment," a show that combined images of flowers, S&M, and black male nudes. In 1989, Washington, D.C.'s Corcoran Gallery of Art canceled the exhibit after Helms harangued against Mapplethorpe.

Helms died in 2008.


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Sampler is an online column highlighting LGBT performances, exhibits, and other entertainment in the San Francisco Bay Area. It typically runs every Tuesday. Contact reporter Seth Hemmelgarn at [email protected] or (415) 875-9986 to suggest column items.