The Life of Robert Mapplethorpe: New Documentary Bares All

Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures is a feature-length documentary film about the life and legacy of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, set to premiere on HBO in April 2016.


Robert Mapplethorpe is a name surrounded with controversy. But Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures is purported to be an in-depth study of the prolific photographer’s life, from his early days at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn with his friend and former girlfriend Patti Smith to his eventual death from an AIDS-related illness in 1989.


The documentary is not for the prudish, according to filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, who revealed:

“Even his most shocking and forbidden images are included without blurs, without snickers –  in other words, exactly as the artist intended.”


Based in a studio for most of his career, Mapplethorpe is famous for his often highly-explicit black-and-white glamour portraits. Perhaps the most well-known controversy of his career occurred in 1989, when the exhibition Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment was set to be shown at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Several members of the U.S. Congress were offended by the homoerotic and sadomasochistic themes present in the photographs, and the Corcoran Gallery refused to run the exhibition.


The exhibition was subsequently shown at the Washington Project for the Arts and the Contemporary Arts Centre in Cincinatti. Museum director Dennis Barrie and the Contemporary Centre for the Arts were charged with obscenity in 1990, but were found not guilty.


While treated with suspicion by some, Mapplethorpe’s work was highly respected by others. In her memoir Just Kids, Patti Smith wrote earnestly about Mapplethorpe’s photography:

“Robert took areas of dark human consent and made them into art. He worked without apology, investing the homosexual with grandeur, masculinity, and enviable nobility. Without affectation, he created a presence that was wholly male without sacrificing feminine grace. He was not looking to make a political statement or an announcement of his evolving sexual persuasion. He was presenting something new, something not seen or explored as he saw and explored it.”