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.
Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures (review)
By Hans Pedersen, April 2016 Web Exclusive.
Photo courtesy of facebook.com/mapplethorpefilm.
“Look at the pictures.” Those were the words said by the late North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms on the U.S. Senate floor more than 25 years ago during the controversy over the work of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. And that is precisely what the creators of this documentary about the famous artist are imploring viewers to do.
Instead of hammering away at the lurid details of Helms’ political exploits, Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures avoids the dreary saga of how the senator made a greater name for himself in favor of sharing the back story of a celebrated artist who helped launch photography into a new stratosphere.
What’s novel about this documentary is how it functions as a companion piece to a joint exhibition about the photographer that just opened at The J. Paul Getty Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It’s the first time in history the two museums have launched twin retrospectives.
The film’s opening and closing scenes show curators as they prepare for the dual exhibition, and just like the documentary, the shows are designed to allow audiences to learn about the man behind the lens.
Filled with more than a few fascinating stories about the iconic photographer, the movie is itself a veritable catalog of Mapplethorpe’s work, including less-publicized works like his floral still lifes and commissioned portraits. There’s more to this artist than just dirty pictures.
Directed and produced by the brilliant team Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Becoming Chaz), the film stretches back to Mapplethorpe’s days living at the Chelsea Hotel in the early ‘70s and hanging out with the Warhol crowd at Max’s Kansas City.
Thomas, 1987. Photo courtesy of mapplethorpe.org.
Painting him as charismatic persona that could woo nearly anyone, the filmmakers share stories (and not always sunny ones) from friends, former models and family members about such subjects as his relationship with singer Patti Smith and a pet monkey he purchased that met a morbid fate. Revealing interviews and juicy gossip from the likes of Debbie Harry and Carolina Herrera are accompanied by a plethora of black-and-white photographs that chronicle these early years of his life.
The documentary reveals how Andy Warhol, initially cool toward Mapplethorpe, warmed up to him, and how the photographer was soon charming aristocrats by day and exploring S&M clubs, like the Mine Shaft, at night.
And from Mapplethorpe’s brother, Edward, a skilled photographer who first worked as Robert’s assistant, we hear intimate insights and revealing stories about the late artist.
And while the film addresses his alienation from his parents over his graphic photos, the narrative avoids dwelling on those who were offended by his disquieting artworks.
While documenting Mapplethorpe’s life, the HBO documentary showcases six of his most scandalized works, never shying away from anything.
But plenty of time is spent exploring his lesser-known works, like his early assemblages; his Polaroids doused in water, with the image removed from the card and mounted; and an array of black-and-white floral photographs with stunning contrast and composition that rivals Georgia O’Keefe in their sexual suggestiveness.
Less suggestive is the full-body shot of Mapplethorpe, his back to the camera as he turns around his head to face it, while inserting the handle of a whip into his bare buns. The fact he was willing to appear in his own explicit photo, one subject points out, helps keep him immune to accusations that he exploits his subjects.
But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as the old maxim goes: it’s pointed out that his photos of female bodybuilders – fairly prosaic by today’s standards -- were considered shocking and disturbing a couple decades ago.
Indeed, “Man in Polyester Suit,” a photo of a man’s large uncircumcised penis spilling out of the fly of the cheap, periwinkle blue slacks, made people gasp in the '80s. Now, it might barely raise an eyebrow compared to what’s available on-line.
Of course Mapplethorpe photos, like one showing a urine-guzzling man, still offend. In a few nearly giggle-worthy moments, museum curators provide formal examinations of such disquieting images without batting an eye. These esteemed curators admire photos of explicit acts in purely formal terms, dismissing the shocking content as they remark on why the composition and contrast are indeed brilliant.
What’s also more important than shock value is how Mapplethorpe changed the world of photography and commerce. As people learned he was dying, following his diagnosis of AIDS in September of 1986, demand for his work skyrocketed.
The doc underscores how Mapplethorpe was the first artist to demand such huge prices for a single photo. What may have shocked the public more about “Man in Polyester Suit” than the overt frontal nudity was it’s sale price of $390,000. Nobody had paid such a price for a photograph before.
Toward the ending, the film chronicles how Cincinnati Police shut down a show of Mapplethorpe’s work and the city’s Contemporary Art Center was charged with obscenity – only to be later found not guilty in court.
But the filmmakers remain skillfully focused on the artist instead of the controversy generated by the likes of Helms, and we’d expect nothing less from the talented creative team involved.
Their interviews reveal a great deal about Mapplethorpe, not only about his charm, but his ruthless ambition, intelligence and the compelling reasons he is regarded as such a brilliant artist.