HBO just announced an upcoming documentary about famed photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who took bold and unwaveringly graphic photos depicting forms of sexual expression that were highly prone to societal scorn.
The documentary, titled Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, hails from the filmmakers behind Inside Deep Throat, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, and sets a precedent as the first documentary feature about Mapplethorpe since his death (due to complications from AIDS) in 1989. Look at the Pictures is made in conjunction with retrospective exhibitions opening at The J. Paul Getty Museum and The Los Angeles County Museum of Art in March, and uses the assembling of these massive exhibits as a framework for a deep dive into Mapplethorpe’s life and work.
Because the two directors had full access to The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation’s archives, the doc will include never-before-seen footage and photos. Bailey and Barbato implied that they wanted to use their privileged access to be as revealing and candid as Mapplethorpe himself. “Even his most shocking and forbidden images are included without blurs, without snickers – in other words, exactly as the artist intended,” they said in a statement.
The film follows him from his enrollment in Pratt to his romance — which evolved into an intense friendship — with Patti Smith (documented in her memoir, Just Kids), to his photographic endeavors capturing BDSM culture in 1970s New York, to his AIDS diagnosis in 1986, to his retrospective at the Whitney in 1988 and ultimately to his death in 1989. It includes interviews with an array of people he knew, including Mary Boone, Fran Lebowitz, Debbie Harry, Carolina Herrera, Brooke Shields, Helen and Brice Marden, Bob Colacello, as well as his sister, Nancy, and brother, Edward.
The film gets its title from North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms’ denunciatory campaign about the National Endowment for the Arts’ funding of one of Robert Mapplethorpe’s exhibits of BDSM-themed photographs — a crusade that led Washington D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery to cancel his show.
With unsurprising sexism, Helms had shouted in Senate, “Look at the pictures! Look at the pictures!… Don’t believe the Washington Post! Don’t believe the New York Times! I’m going to ask that all the pages, all the ladies, and maybe all the staff leave the Chamber so that senators can see exactly what they’re voting on.”
Indeed, as a rebuttal of sorts, the film’s name and very existence implies the endurance of Mapplethorpe’s work as a power over such forces: “Look at the pictures” seems here voided of its initially disparaging meaning. The doc will debut exclusively on HBO in April of 2016.