Sundance ’16: Bailey, Barbato’s “Mapplethorpe” looks beyond scandal

World of Wonder's Fenton Bailey tells realscreen about going past the scandal narrative surrounding artist and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (pictured) in the Sundance-bowing film.
January 29, 2016

The year ahead will be a big one for fans of late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. 
Four years after acquiring 2,000 Mapplethorpe photographs, the J. Paul Getty Museum and Los Angeles County Museum of Art are joining forces on a major retrospective of his work that will open in Los Angeles in March and run through July.

Meanwhile, preparations for the concurrent exhibits are chronicled in a documentary about Mapplethorpe’s life and work that world premiered at Sundance last week.

Directed and produced by World of Wonder’s Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, will screen next at the Berlinale and air on HBO in April following a limited theatrical run. Dogwoof is handling international distribution outside North America.

HBO head of documentaries Sheila Nevins came up with the idea for a film about Mapplethorpe and discussed it with Bailey and Barbato, who brought The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation on board for what is the first documentary about the influential photographer since his death from AIDS-related complications in 1989.

While his self-portraits, celebrity portraits, nudes, still-life flowers and BDSM images became influential – and in the latter case, notorious
– Mapplethorpe became more widely known shortly after his death when a travelling exhibition of his work, The Perfect Moment, was cancelled in Washington DC.

The exhibit brought together Mapplethorpe’s various portfolios together for the first time, but the inclusion of sex pictures set off a political debate around what type of work the National Endowment of the Arts should fund.

Meanwhile, in Cincinnati, the Contemporary Arts Center and its director were slapped with obscenity charges for exhibiting Mapplethorpe’s photos.

With Look at the Pictures, Bailey and Barbato wanted to extract the photographer from the scandal narrative that propelled him to posthumous fame, and put the focus back on his art.

“We realized he hasn’t really been looked at afresh. He was stuck in that bubble of the NEA and the censorship scandal,” explains Bailey, adding that he believes Mapplethorpe suspected what a stir The Perfect Moment would cause.

“He knew he was dying and he deliberately created this exhibition in this way,” he says. “It was a bit like David Bowie and Blackstar. Even though he wasn’t around to see it, I think it was his parting gift. I have the feeling he had an inkling of what a fuss it could create because it just went off like a bomb.”

Although Mapplethorpe has been the subject of biographies and his friend Patti Smith’s book Just Kids, the documentary gives viewers a chance to hear from the artist himself through archival audio interviews conducted with print journalists.

“One of the misperceptions was that Mapplethorpe couldn’t write, couldn’t talk about his work and he didn’t talk about his work,” says Bailey. “You realize that everyone has been busy filling in that gap and talking about it on his behalf, but actually he’s formidably articulate and capable of telling you exactly what he was doing and exactly why he was doing it. This film is his work, in his words.”

When the filmmakers approached the Mapplethorpe Foundation, it was initially weary given that Mapplethorpe’s name has become synonymous with controversy. Ultimately, the backing of HBO was persuasive and the Foundation provided access to a broad spectrum of the artist’s work, from his most controversial photographs to his little-seen collages and experimental films.

Although Bailey says there are “literally thousands” of penis photographs in the movie, the network did not flinch when the filmmakers showed execs an early version that featured an extra helping of X-rated material in case cuts were required.

“There’s no point in talking about this artist who was so honest and uncompromising and then blur things out or worse, just not show them,” says Bailey. “We thought, we’ll just make the film and won’t show anything to [HBO] until we’ve got a really good rough cut so they can see the film in its totality and – amazingly – they loved it. They haven’t touched it.”

Despite his status as one of the best known photographers of the past 50 years, there was not a lot
of moving footage of Robert Mapplethorpe. For World of Wonder’s in-house archival producer Mona Card, the photographer proved an elusive subject.

“The challenge with Robert was that his time period was a little bit before everyone had a video camera,” she explains.

Mapplethorpe was not a paparazzi or media figure and even footage from art openings was hard to track down, so the photographer is most present in the film through the cassette and microcassette recordings of his interviews with print journalists.

Working with the Mapplethorpe Foundation, the Getty Research Institute and Mapplethorpe’s family, Card was able to amass early childhood photos, family home movies and his photos and art work – from early Polaroids to both his best- known and little-seen works.

Nearly 50 of Mapplethorpe’s friends, colleagues and family were interviewed for the film and many others who have either passed on or opted not to participate (such as Smith) are present through archive.

Footage in the film includes excerpts from two documentaries about Mapplethorpe, as well as news footage shot when Mapplethorpe lived with Patti Smith at the Chelsea Hotel, which came from an old CBS News archive owned by T3 Digital.

“We were looking at stuff from the Chelsea at the time and one of the women we interviewed, artist Sandy Daley, was interviewed for a news story about people who lived there,” says Card. “The hotel manager had suggested Sandy because he liked her room. It was all painted white with nothing really in it. It turned out she had Robert come in to sit with her. It wasn’t archived under his name so it was a lucky find.”

Other archival sources used in Look at the Pictures included networks such as C-Span, CNN and CBS news, archives Getty Images, F.I.L.M. Archives, Oddball Films, Historic Films and artists and photographers such as Gerard Malanga, Mick Rock, Lloyd Ziff, Dafydd Jones and Anton Perich.

Since Mapplethorpe and his Perfect Moment exhibit are now textbook case studies for photography students, the team behind Look at the Pictures hopes viewers will walk away from the film with a deeper understanding of his formative influences and creative evolution.

“We cover everything so the depth is unusual,” says Card. “You wouldn’t be able to go to a show and see such a broad spectrum of his work.”

“Any time you make a film it’s a bit like having a love affair with a person,” says Bailey. “You have this intimate relationship where you’re thinking about them day in and day out for a long period of time. I came to really admire Mapplethorpe because he was so honest in a way that I feel even today we’re not prepared for.

“We know him for the fist-f***ing pictures, but they’re really not the most shocking things he did or said,” he continues. “The most shocking thing about this person was his incredible honesty and that was a great thing to experience.”

Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures screens at the Sundance Film Festival tomorrow (January 30) at the Redstone Cinema 7 at 9 p.m. and again on Sunday (January 31). For complete screening info, visit the festival’s website.

  • A version of this story, part of our Archive Focus, first appeared in the January/February 2016 issue of realscreen magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.