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Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures

The penetrating eye and the trenchant gaze of the photographer: new HBO documentary examines the life and the legacy of an artist who laid his subjects bare and shocked the world

The controversial New York photographer Robert Mapplethorpe changed the way people looked at photography and placed it firmly at the heart of the art world before his untimely death of the age of just 43 in year. He was a bold, controversial, subversive and success-driven artist who toiled to be remembered long after his death. These are the main revelations of Robert Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, a convincing new HBO documentary about the photographer.

Mapplethorpe became famous around the globe for his artistic courage and boldness. He depicted sexuality in graphic detail with a flare and candidness rarely seen before. His most emblematic pieces include ‘Man in Polyester Suit’ – where his lover Milton Moore is famously showing his large black genitalia through his trousers -, and ‘Self-Portrait with Bullwhip’ – where the artist in a backward position inserts a whip in is anus while facing the camera.

The documentary examines Mapplethorpe’s obstinate, manipulative and career-driven personality, from his early days living, through his rapid rise to fame until his Aids-related death in 1989. It combines statements from the artist himself with interviews with his family, his various lovers and subjects in order to paint a detailed and accurate picture of a picture-maker.

In the film, Mapplethorpe’s eyes are described as “penetrating”. He used both the naked eye and the camera as a pungent art devices, often penetrating his subjects in more than one way. His photographs include fisting, the inserting of a finger in the penis and very graphic sadomasochism. He was very intimate with subjects, many of which were his lovers. Mapplethorpe was bisexual and the American rocker Patti Smith was his first big love (they are pictured together below). He authored the photography in the cover of the legendary album ‘Horses’, where Smith holds a leather jacket.


The imperative “Look at the Pictures” in title of the film is an invitation to look at Mapplethorpe’s audacious work without cringing or closing your eyes. The viewers of this film must face up to sexuality in all of its integrity, in the same way that people attending Mapplethorpe’s exhibitions had to engage with the pictures hanging on the wall of the art galleries.

Mapplethorpe’s work was highly dual, the film also reveals. On one hand, the sexuality was crude and brutal, shocking even for today’s standards. In fact, much of his work would still be considered illegal in the UK today, given the country’s strict pornography laws. On the other hand, he elegantly photographed flowers and celebrities, and soon became a favourite amongst Hollywood artists and millionares (such as Brooke Shields and Carolina Herrera).

The controversial artist had a passion for the mainstream. He wanted to become as rich and famous as possible before his death, and he often resented Andy Warhol because he was more commercially-successful than him.

Mapplethorpe helped to shape modern gay culture, with all of its daring sexuality but also sometimes ideologically-conservative and exclusionary elements. His work is highly self-centred, phallocentric and body-fascist, with prominence given to large penises and shiny muscles. He is also celebrity and fashion-driven, just like some of the gay world.

Mapplethorpe’s awareness of his impending death made him more prolific than ever. He timed his final exhibition ‘The Perfect Moment’ to coincide with his death, similarly to how the musician David Bowie recently did with his album ‘Black Star’. Both artistic geniuses wanted to give their fans a departing gift. The difference is that, in the case of Mapplethorpe, people were very much aware of his tragic predicament throughout.

The film fails to explore, however, Mapplethorpe’s influences and predecessors, like illustrator Tom of Finland and photographers Bob Mizer and Tom Eakins. Mapplethorpe importance in breaking the boundaries between art and pornography is undeniable, but Robert Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures sometimes gives the false impression that there was nothing prior to the artist, as if no one had endeavoured to portray sexuality in a honest way before Mapplethorpe.

Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures is out now in cinemas in the UK and other countries, or you can buy it now on iTunes (just click here in order to find out more). Don’t forget to watch the film trailer below:

By Victor Fraga - 17-04-2016

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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