Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s Mapplethorpe: Looks at the Pictures is a compelling slice of the art world from every angle. With a tight focus on decoding the myth of iconic photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, this documentary is entrancing to watch if only because it manages to turn its subject into an enigma while it explores his life. Part paean for the artist, part exposé of Mapplethorpe as a man, Looks at the Pictures is a treat for audiences. What unfolds throughout this documentary is a careful, if somewhat typical examination.
This is a rich portrait of not only Mapplethorpe, but also the history of the New York art world in the latter half of the 20th century. The doc follows a predictable ‘cradle to the grave’ timeline of Robert’s life, choosing to analyse his life as he matured into the monolithic artist as he is remembered today rather than examining his through the different subjects that merged to make him. The structure is rote; Mapplethorpe was anything but. Through him, we watch the New York arts scene transition from mid-century avant-garde into a post-modern and wholly exposed environment. He is positioned as an emblem of constantly evolving American sexual morals and an emerging master of modern photography. What becomes evident is that Mapplethorpe was born a star and his rise to prominence was not only self-made but also wildly progressive.
While the film invites and captivates in its exploration of the thorough importance of its subject, it falls short of any deeper examination of the confluences of issues Mapplethorpe embodies. We touch on the fault lines of gay culture, the rise of photography as an artistic medium or the shocking power of his artwork but somehow falters in enunciating as to why Mapplethorpe in particular should be remembered as a figurehead of these issues. That said, there is a sumptuousness presented here that inspires a reverence for his work and, simultaneously, a jealousy for his artistic vision. As an artist who literally exposed himself and his subjects in full detail, Looks at the Pictures honors that exploratory impulse.
There’s no recollection of Mapplethorpe that goes wasted; every anecdote or reflection reveals and reveres in equal measure. Furthermore, audiences are treated to a sweeping catalogue of the artist’s photography in a career spanning nearly 30 years: a treat unto itself. Mapplethorpe: Looks at the Pictures is a documentary that should be noteworthy not only for its historical and artistic analysis but also for its loving embrace of the man himself. It highlights the delicate deal that an artist strikes when he chooses to plow forth into revelatory and revolutionary territory. Simply put, this documentary is far from mundane and worth every minute.
Mapplethorpe: Looks at the Pictures is now available on DVD and on demand. mapplethorpefilm.com
Allie Gemmill | @alliegem