Mapplethorpe

By Hans Pedersen, April 2016 Issue.

Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, the directors and executive producers of Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, have found their niche in telling unique stories that are relevant to the LGBTQ community, including previous documentaries The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Party Monster and Becoming Chaz.

In addition to their extensive work in film and television, they’re also co-creators of the Logo series “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

The prolific directing team enlisted the help of Robert Mapplethorpe’s brother, Edward, to shed light on the documentary’s subject. Edward began working as his brother’s assistant and now enjoys a successful career as a photographer in his own right.

Pictures/Self Portrait, 1977. Photo courtesy of mapplethorpe.org.

The three talented artists sat down for an interview with Echo at this year’s Sundance Film Festival to discuss the new HBO documentary that debuts April 4.

Echo: What was the genesis of this project?

Bailey: Randy and I were living in the ’80s in the East Village and we were aware of Robert Mapplethorpe. He was a famous artist to talk about, but we never met him. [Executive producer] Sheila Nevins at HBO brought up his name and we thought, “My God, this would be incredible!” We hadn’t realized since his passing in ’89 there hadn’t been a feature-length documentary about him, so it felt like an untold story … a full generation had passed. Twenty-five years is a long time and suddenly we could look at the work perhaps in the light Robert had originally intended. Then we started researching … and we needed Edward and were prevailing upon him to participate. And that’s when we knew it was going to be great.

Echo: What made you decide to finally participate?

Mapplethorpe: I met Fenton first and was sort of apprehensive; I think he’s indicated that … I like to go by my instinct on character and I felt a kinship to him immediately … It soon became apparent to me they were the people to tell the story … Once I got involved I jumped onboard. I felt a responsibility to my brother and family … and it’s a beautiful documentary.

Echo: Do you think you would have been a photographer if Robert had not?

Mapplethorpe: I think I would have chosen a creative path. Having Robert as a brother and having his career start before I got out of school was certainly a big encouragement to me. I was taught photography by my father … He knew about f-stops, and shutter speeds and depth of field, and I enjoyed that. I also had this academic science, engineering, and math training, and it was really when I went to the university and got into a darkroom when the two sides of my brain were married …

Echo: Could you talk about the decision to keep Jesse Helms out of the story?

Bailey: The thing is, Jesse Helms hijacked his work. And so really, what’s true about his work is not what Jesse Helms brought to it. That was a sideshow. I think we’re correcting the historical record. It’s not about ignoring the controversy – the controversy sort of ran away with itself – and it’s not what he [Robert Mapplethorpe] was about. I don’t think he was necessarily particularly political.

Mapplethorpe: Robert? No, not at all. I don’t think politics was ever discussed at the studio.

Barbato: We knew we had to include Jesse Helms, and we didn’t want it to hijack the film. But at the same time, Jesse Helms gave us the title of the film. And we thought, “OK, we’ll use it at the beginning, we’ll remind everyone, and then we’ll get it out of the way.” So that’s what we did. The rest of the story was what was important to us. Twenty-five years later it didn’t feel like you could tell the rest of the story without that cloud hanging over the rest of the narrative.

The fact that LACMA and the Getty, these two amazing art institutions, were planning this huge joint retrospective gave us this additional narrative, but also helped us frame this film and his work in the arena that it really deserved to be framed in, not on the Senate floor with Jesse Helms waving around a black penis. It really deserved to be filmed in a different context.

Bailey: And they did so by deliberately taking those images out of context. So when we return to them at the end of the film, hopefully you can see that the final show he planned was 175 pictures, and only a handful went on trial. And the jury wasn’t allowed to see the other pictures in the exhibition. They were only allowed to go to the venue after the show was closed … and forced to focus on these pictures and exclude everything else. So by the time we return to the controversy at the end, you’ve seen everything else and you can see how ridiculous the whole thing was.

Echo: Was there anything you chose to leave out because maybe it was too graphic or too much?

Bailey: It’s all in there. We thought HBO might want to take a few things out…

Barbato: So we put a couple extra things in there, and they didn’t! So it was never really intended to be quite that explicit … It’s important the explicit images are there and we’re not tucking them away, but when you start to see them with everything else it’s like, “oh there’s artistry at work.”

Mapplethorpe: I have an interesting take on that. In the film we interview two of our studio managers … they talk of how we just got numb to it… It’s about sexuality that exists whether it’s recorded or not. If you have a problem with it, then you have a problem with it. It made us giggle in the studio, how ridiculous it all was. Certainly after Robert’s death, Robert couldn’t have asked for a better promotion than Jesse Helms. It all sort of backfired, in a way.

Echo: I liked what you said about how it felt like Robert helped guide the project.

Bailey: We’d do an interview and it would get interrupted every time. This happened a lot. Every time there was going to be a revealing moment, or maybe something Robert wouldn’t like to be said, there was a crash or a bang or a siren. And then with Edward it was non-stop. Every 60 seconds. And we were so apologetic and he was like, “oh this happens all the time.”

Mapplethorpe: Early in the process I think I let them know, are you really sure you want me to get involved in this? I’m not a religious person, I have my certain beliefs and stuff. But I will say, Robert’s spirit is very much alive.

Bailey: The first time we showed you the film at HBO… we were all very anxious.

Barbato: It was intense, Sheila Nevins was there.

Mapplethorpe: They were telling the story about my changing my name. Lo and behold all of the sudden, out of the blue in this office the telephone rings and somebody from HBO, I think it was Sara, answered the phone… I said to Sara who was on the phone? She’s like, “No one.” We were all like, oooh…

Barbato: It was creepy.

Bailey: It was very weird. It’s a conference room where they shut the phones off during the screenings.

At that moment, an incident occurred that must remain off-the-record, and the group took it as another sign that Robert is still around. The incident caused a technical issue with the recording, effectively rendering the remaining couple of minutes of the interview inaudible.

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