Mapplethorpe: Look At The Pictures
Robert Mapplethorpe 93.4289 4/18/02 Ellen Labenski
There is a poignant moment in Patti Smith’s highly romanticised and idealised biography ‘Just Kids’ when she describes how on New Years Eve 1969, as the sixties rolled into the seventies, she and this film’s subject matter Robert Mapplethorpe stood looking at the billboards John Lennon and Yoko Ono provided for the major cities of the western world proclaiming ‘War is over if you want it’ apparently inspiring both of them to make their mark in the coming decade; she via the form of wordy message and he through the medium of visual art.
Of course this is like everything that Smith propagates around this time, in that life was an incessant voyage of discovery and although she is obviously an important part of Mapplethorpe’s life-and a personal inspiration to me- I was quite relieved that she only appears in this film through recorded early interviews and even then only as a side figure; rather than allowing her to crowd the tale as she often does when it comes to Mapplethorpe.
Instead, for possibly the first time, the selfishness, ruthless ambition and tendency to use anybody who could help him in any way, through whatever means he had at his disposal, becomes wholly apparent and perhaps this is what he and Smith shared more than anything apart from those very early formative years when their ambitious natures settled on the Herculean task of taking on the world.
Other lovers, friends and family are therefore allowed their say in the making of the Mapplethorpe legend including telling statements from David Croland, Debbie Harry and most revealingly his younger brother Edward. What emerges is a self-obsessed narcissist who used people as he needed them but only if they could further his career. It was a trait he was quite open about, particularly in the case of Sam Wagstaff who had the connections and money to further his career in a way that Mapplethorpe could only dream about. In fact some would say and confirmation exists in a separate documentary film- Black and White and Grey- about the two of them that without Wagstaff’s patronage Mapplethorpe would not have the career that he eventually did.
However it is Mapplethorpe’s work that stands out and his revolutionary approach to taboo subjects such as homosexuality, male genitalia and S&M practices are what ultimately made him successful.Also positioning himself within the photos thus removing the voyeuristic aspect associated with such practices was a revolutionary idea in the seventies; the photo of him administering an enema tube into his own anus is both compelling and fascinating.
His portrait pictures however have not stood the test of time so well and apart from several sessions with Smith-most notably his cover portrait for her revelatory debut album ‘Horses’- his work with women was not always so successful as in both these areas he tended towards a slickness that was too idealised and has no edge in contemporary eyes. His flower shots though are stunning- ‘From flowers to fist-fucking’ is how one contributor describes the dichotomy that lies at the heart of his best work- and show a tenderness and sexuality that is not initially apparent.
This film is extremely worthwhile for anyone with an interest in Mapplethorpe’s work and allows a glimpse of what actually drove the man-ambition, ruthlessness, fame, money and post-death legacy- while still leaving something of the legend intact. The photos, as ever, remain the entire legacy he really needs!
Robert Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures is showing at The Filmhouse for the rest of this week only.

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