Filmmakers wanted to reveal photographer Mapplethorpe
January 19, 2016
Twenty-five years ago, selected photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe’s solo exhibit, "The Perfect Moment," went on trial.
The pictures, culled from a larger body of work of what is known as his X portfolio, depicted black and white scenes of sado-masochism, nudity and urophagia and sparked a fire of controversy surrounding the issues of public funding for the arts, censorship and obscenity.
But that was just part of the story, according to filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, whose "Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures", an HBO Documentary, is one of the Sundance Film Festival documentary premieres.
"In regards to this film, it’s been 25 years since his work has been on trial, and we have this idea that maybe everyone’s understanding of who Robert Mapplethorpe was isn’t really the truth or reality," Bailey told The Park Record during a conference call with Barbato from Hollywood. "I mean, during the trial, something like half a dozen images were put on trail, but the exhibition they were pulled from had 175 images. We were interested in the rest of his stuff."
To get to the core of Mapplethorpe the artist was to get to the core of Mapplethorpe the person, according to Bailey.
"We wanted to know the rest of his story because we felt the life he was leading was more important than the photos he was taking," Bailey said. "So, this idea of someone who lives his life as a work of art would be a great opportunity to make film."
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Of course the film had to include the controversy, including some of the graphic photography. But controversy is something the filmmakers have faced with their other films, including "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," "Inside Deep Throat" and "Party Monster."
"That’s not because we like to shock," Bailey said. "I think we’re always interested in what it is that makes someone or something controversial."
"As filmmakers, whether it’s about Tammy Faye or Chaz Bono or Monica Lewinsky, all subjects of films we have made in the past, we often are attracted to subjects who are overexposed, yet under-revealed," he said. "Since Robert Mapplethorpe’s death, his presence and iconicity has grown, but the understanding of him really hasn’t. So, on that level, he seemed like such an obvious subject.
"As it turned out, Getty and LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), two significant art institutions, are, for the first time, organizing a joint retrospective of his work," Barbato said. "So, it was the prefect moment for us to take a look at him, his work, his life and also to record the process of these two institutions putting together this exhibition."
From the start, the filmmakers faced a challenge due to the AIDS epidemic in the early 1990s that not only claimed their subject, but also many of his contemporaries.
Still, the filmmakers were able to conduct nearly 50 on-camera interviews.
"We had great access to his family, in particular Robert’s younger brother Edward," Bailey said. "Edward was so significant in his life because he worked with Robert in the studio for many years and was with him for the last years of his life."
Through Edward, the filmmakers were led to other sources.
"We think of Mapplethorpe and think that he is a singular artist, but in reality was a collaborator," Bailey said. "He always said that taking someone’s pictures was a very intimate collaboration and he intimately collaborated with a lot of people. And he didn’t just make love to them with his camera."
The film features many of Mapplethorpe’s subjects, his surviving lovers as well as art writers and critics.
It also features rare recordings and video tapes.
"We have Mapplethorpe, himself, telling his story and to me that’s incredible," Bailey said.
The recordings they found came from a slew of sources, including Mapplethorpe biographer Patricia Morrisroe, Barbato said.
"In every conversation we had, we would grovel and beg people to dig through what they had," Barbato said. "We talked with journalists who did interviews 25 years ago and offered to digitize cassette recordings."
"Because (Mapplethorpe) was so persistent about making people interview him and write about him, there was a trail of him talking about his work," Bailey said.
The filmmakers learned many things about Mapplethorpe during the filming.
"One was that he wasn’t just a photographer, but a documentarian," Barbato said. "His art documented what he did — the life he led. And it was that full, total immersion in a lifestyle that really was his art."
Barbato found Mapplethorpe to be an honest artist.
"He was very direct about who he was and why he did what he did," he said. "He was naked about his ambition in a way that I found admirable."
Bailey enjoyed discovering how determined Mapplethorpe was.
"It’s (fascinating to me) how successful he was at surviving his own death," Bailey said.
Not only did Mapplethorpe set up the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to protect his work, advance his creative vision and further the recognition of photography as an art form and support medical research in the area of AIDS and HIV infection, he also planned his last show, "The Perfect Moment," which opened a few months before his death in March, 1989.
The retrospective exhibit featured works that were not only from the X portfolio, but from the Y and Z portfolios as well.
"He knew to put (all the) portfolios on display together for the first time and combine the blacks, flowers and the sex pictures," Bailey said. "He quite deliberately knew that he was setting off a time bomb. He was very determined to survive his death and I think he did so rather brilliantly. I compare it in my mind with David Bowie and his album ‘Blackstar.’"
The Sundance Film Festival will premiere "Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures" at the MARC Theatre, 1200 Little Kate Rd., on Friday, Jan. 22,, at 2:30 p.m. Additional screenings will be at the Library Center Theatre. 1255 Park Ave., on Saturday, Jan. 23, at 9 a.m., Sundance Mountain Resort Screening Room, on Saturday, Jan. 23, at 6 p.m., the Redstone Cinema 7, 6030 Market St. in Park City, on Saturday, Jan.30, at 9 p.m., and at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Jan. 31, at 3:45 p.m. For more information, visit http://www.sundance.org .