how do you capture robert mapplethorpe's world?

The directors of a new documentary about Robert Mapplethorpe talk about his life, his art and his hustle.

by Colin Crummy
08 February 2016, 9:55am

If you've ever uttered Yas Qween' in conversation, then you have Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey to thank, Barbato and Bailey's production company, which is home to RuPaul's Drag Race, has brought modern gay parlance out of the underground and into the mainstream. But in their work, the underground, whether that's language, code or culture, is always the starting point.

Now the pair have turned their attention to a legendary visual subversive, Robert Mapplethorpe, for its latest documentary. Mapplethorpe rose to prominence in the late 70s for his blunt and beautiful black and white photography, which captured flowers in bloom, celebrities in repose and most notoriously nudity, homosexuality and the Manhattan BDSM scene at play.

That notoriety swelled when Senator Jessie Helms took to the floor of Congress to denounce the photographer's work, calling for a touring exhibition of Mapplethorpe's explicit images to be banned. It is here that Barbato and Bailey take up his story in Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures (a reference Helms' cry to the floor of Congress while waving a photograph of a flaccid cock about).

What was the objective with the film?
Fenton: In the process of making this film we came to see it should be about his work and, as far as possible, in his words. Jessie Helms hijacked his story, other people have had their say about who Mapplethorpe was but what about Mapplethorpe himself? We found all these interviews and recordings. People said he didn't write but we found all these letters. We kept thinking 'what would he do?' That's how we navigated our way through it.
Randy: We were inspired by Jessie Helms himself. Watching that footage of him on the Senate floor waving around the big black cock and shouting 'Look at the pictures, look at the pictures'. We thought it's time to look at the pictures, to reframe Mapplethorpe's work, to take it back. That controversy overshadowed his artistry.

You begin with the Helms controversy but quickly leave aside the censorship issue - why?
R: We wanted to get that out of the way, give it a little bit of context. All of that happened after Mapplethorpe died and we didn't want to spend a lot of time in our movie with him dead.
F: Hopefully by the time we come back to it by the end you can understand that Mapplethorpe knew exactly what he was doing. In his final exhibition [before his death], it's like David Bowie's Blackstar. He knew he was going die, he knew it would be a huge controversy and serve his goal, make him world famous.

How did you work with the most explicit imagery?
R: We do help people out a bit. It's not that we editorialize but the fist fucking image and the finger in the penis, we have Mapplethorpe's friend talking about those in a kind of jokey way. Also the entire film is framed in the context of the Getty and LACMA [who open joint Mapplethorpe retrospectives next month]. The first time we see the portrait of the whip up his ass, it's curators from two of the biggest art institutions in the world talking about the contrast and the light. It gives people permission to watch.
F: Also the pictures are humorous. They are serious works of art and at the same time, Man in Polyester Suit a funny picture. We didn't want to deny that humour. The laughter also gives you permission to view. That was intentionally part of his work. He wanted to be taken seriously as an artist but he didn't mean without a sense of humour.

What do you think Mapplethorpe would make of the film?
F: I hope he'd be pleased with the film he co-directed. He said the life he was leading was more important than the pictures he was taking. I think what he meant was his life was the work of art. So what he was interested in doing was documenting that work of art and that's why he was a documentary artist.
R: He was attracted to writers. So many of his friends were writers who were writing about him. He was building - RuPaul calls it 'legwork', legacy work. He was doing legwork. He was building his legacy.
F: It's an important detail that a book about Mapplethorpe was written by Patricia Morrisroe who was commissioned by Mapplethorpe to do it. It wasn't her idea, it was his. He hired her. He was very strategic.

At the Sundance premiere you compared Mapplethorpe to Madonna. Can you explain?
F: They were both in New York at the exact same time, they were both raised Catholic. Both came from middle class, ordinary backgrounds. But they were both determined to make it and they both knew that it wasn't enough to be good at what you did. They also knew you needed to position your art and market it. Part of being an artist was to get it out there. It wasn't enough to be an artist in your garret. You needed to get it into galleries, you needed to get a record deal. You needed to hustle. Hustle is part of the art.
R: The 80s was a turning point in terms of what was happening in New York and in the arts. Up until that point by and large you needed to be a starving artist who was discovered. This idea that you could market and brand yourself was not cool. Mapplethorpe was very open about that. Madonna was. They both had a vision, they were both incredibly strong willed artists who didn't leave their success to chance.

Do you own any Mapplethorpe?
F: No. When we lived in New York, Polyester Suit was $25,000.
R: We were too busy hustling.
F: And now we don't have half a million dollars.

Do you have a favourite Mapplethorpe image?
F: I really like the one of him holding the black cock in his hand. You can feel that cock in his hand.
R: I love all his early artwork, those collages. We didn't even know about those. I love the Polaroid self-portraits; there's a joy to them. There's that S&M shot of the two guys and one is sitting in a chair. I love that; it's so formal.

What, is any, is the connection between the lighter work you do like RuPaul's Drag Race?
R: There's a lot of things in common. There's a seriousness, a commitment to artistry and there's a sense of humour. Drag Race is a show about artists and Robert Mapplethorpe was someone whose life was about art. Every single drag queen is about their art. There's a complete connection.

Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures is on HBO 4th April and in cinemas from 8th April. 

Robert Mapplethorpe
the world of robert mapplethorpe