The other night I had the evening to myself and was searching various streaming services for something to watch. On HBO I found the Robert Mapplethorpe documentary, “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures.”
It caught my attention because a fellow photographer had recommended it to me just the day before. I was also interested in it because I had recently learned in a New York Times article that his brother Edward was also a photographer and I heard that Edward appeared throughout the documentary.
If you’re aware of Robert’s work, you might feel some apprehension in watching the film. If you’re not, I will offer the caveat that there is a lot of imagery that is NSFW. To put it mildly, Mapplethorpe explored a lot of taboos in his work.
I was expecting the documentary to talk about those taboos and the body of work that is known as the X Portfolio. It did, but it’s really a biography of Mapplethorpe’s whole life, starting with his Catholic upbringing in Queens and ending a year after his death at the age of 42 when his work faced protest and censorship in the famous case of the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center being charged with obscenity after hosting an exhibition of his photographs.
In the years between, he went to Pratt, he dated Patti Smith, he lived in the Chelsea hotel, he was a regular at Max’s Kansas City, and he built a huge archive of incredible photographs. I hadn’t known all those things and I was really impressed by the range of images he produced that I had never been aware of. Some of them are achingly beautiful.
The documentary does a great job of not sensationalizing the more sensational aspects of Mapplethorpe’s story, and the through-line that brings us into the present day is the preparation being made by curators at the Getty and at LACMA during the course of filming. Simultaneous exhibitions are on at both institutions through July 31, 2016. If I were in California, I would make sure to get to both museums. Since it seems like I won’t get to do that, I’ll have to be satisfied to perhaps rewatch the doc…or just look at the pictures (online).