Watch the new Mapplethorpe documentary trailer

Robert Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures features contributions from his friends Debbie Harry and Brice Marden
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Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait, 1982. © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission. Mapplethorpe Flora: The Complete Flowers, Phaidon
Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait, 1982. © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission. Mapplethorpe Flora: The Complete Flowers, Phaidon

Had he lived to see it, the right wing US senator Jesse Helms would surely have been surprised to learn that he was partly responsible for the the name of a new documentary celebrating the life and work of the great photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

In 1989, Helms lobbied the National Endowment for the Arts to disown the photographer’s work, after learning thatthe organisation had helped fund Mapplethorpe’s solo exhibition, The Perfect Moment.

Helms was successful in part; he and his fellow lobbyists persuaded the Cocoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC to cancel its leg of the Perfect Moment tour. However, Helms’ words, spoken on the floor of the US Congress have effectively been turned against him in Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s lucid new documentary of the photographer's life and work. 

 

Robert Mapplethorpe, Calla Lily, 1988, Gelatin Silver Print © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Mapplethorpe  Flora: The Complete Flowers, Phaidon
Robert Mapplethorpe, Calla Lily, 1988, Gelatin Silver Print © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Mapplethorpe Flora: The Complete Flowers, Phaidon

Robert Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures opens with Helms beseeching his fellow statesmen to “look at the pictures” when deciding whether or not Mapplethorpe’s work was art or pornography. The irony, played out over the course of the film, is that Mapplethorpe shared senator Helms’ wish. He also wished to be judged on the merits of his work, which included delicate flower photographs as well as emotive S&M imagery.

Combining archive footage with latter-day interviews, the film tells the story of the photographer’s life, from his suburban childhood, to his early penniless existence in Manhattan, on to his eventual success. The photographer’s brother and sister, Edward and Nancy, feature in the film, as do Mapplethorpe’s friends, including the singer Debbie Harry, the artist Brice Marden, and the gallerist Mary Boone.

 

 

The documentary, which will premier on HBO on 4 April, has been described as the first major one on the photographer since his death. It coincides with a huge Mapplethorpe retrospective in Los Angeles, The Perfect Medium. Proof, perhaps, that we’re finally following Helms’ words, though not, perhaps, in the way he intended. Watch the trailer above; and for greater understanding of Robert Mapplethorpe’s flower photographs, and to see each image reproduced with exquisite accuracy, care and attention order a copy of Mapplethorpe Flora: The Complete Flowers here.  


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