Film Review - Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures

Robert Mapplethorpe

‘Look at the Pictures’ is a meticulous biopic that does full justice to the beauty, and shock value, of celebrated 1970s gay photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe’s work, says Colum Finnegan


This new HBO documentary, directed by the team behind RuPaul’s Drag Race, has been released to coincide with a large retrospective of Mapplethorpe’s work taking place in LA. The film offers viewers a glimpse into the hyper-sexualised milieu of gay 1970’s New York in which Mapplethorpe created his art. It charts his rise from suburban, middle class, Catholic, childhood to 1980’s art world darling through the lens of generous and wide-ranging interviews with the many people who knew him.

The story will be familiar to those who have an interest in his photography. Mapplethorpe’s formative years saw him shacked up in the Chelsea Hotel with his then girlfriend Patti Smith. Initially dismissive of photography, he started to produce collages using gay pornography. Eventually he decided it would be cheaper to shoot his own nudes instead of buying expensive porn magazines. One thing led to another and Mapplethorpe eventually left Patti for Sam Wagstaff – a wealthy gay curator who bought him a loft and a Hassleblad camera.

Wagstaff’s financial support allowed Mapplethorpe to develop his distinctive style. He began frequenting the underground gay BDSM scene in New York, often taking men home to photograph. It emerges that Mapplethorpe became obsessed with the penis and the search for the perfect member, a fact clearly reflected in the bulk of his work, the majority and most extreme of which is on full display in this film.

The filmmakers present a fairly balanced portrait of the artist. He comes across as a singularly driven and ambitious individual, and though not explicitly stated, it is implied that though undoubtedly talented, Mapplethorpe was ruthless willing to turn against those close to him as he pursued his own success. Ultimately this never-sated pursuit of fame and fortune seems to have left him a somewhat unhappy individual, never making as much money as he wanted or eclipsing the fame of his hated rival, Andy Warhol.

Working with standard biopic material, the strength of the film is twofold: the range of interviews and the ample time given to Mapplethorpe’s work itself. The interviews presented here show real dedication on the part of the filmmakers, who have left almost no stone unturned (though Patti Smith is conspicuously absent).

The lush presentation of Mapplethorpes rigid, formal and austere photography is particularly well suited to the screen and thus alone justifies the ticket price – in lieu of a trip to LA to see the real thing the film does the photography justice, presenting both his most famous work and some lesser known, but equally affecting pieces.

Ultimately Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures does what it says on the tin. It’s a highly competent documentary that lets us look at the pictures. If you have an interest in Mapplethorpe’s work, then it is more than worthwhile. However one caveat – viewers unacquainted with his photography should perhaps embark on quick google before deciding to see it. Some of his photographs are, to put it mildly, an acquired taste.

Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures is released on April 22 in the IFI


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