This April, roughly 25 years after Robert Mapplethorpe’s AIDS-related death, directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbaro will present Mapplethorpe: Look At The Pictures, the first ever feature length film about the provocative photographer’s life and work. Premiering concurrently with two retrospectives of his work at LACMA and the Getty Museum, the documentary pushes against the hagiographic light typically cast on Mapplethorpe’s career.
Lovers, friends, and family (including Mapplethorpe’s brother Edward Mapplethorpe aka Visionaire contributor Edward Maxey, an artist name Robert forced his brother to adopt) remember a Mapplethorpe who struggled to juggle ambition and intimacy, or as one ex-boyfriend recounts someone who only cared about money, fame, and sex. There’s a levity to their testimonials though that lends a human element to Mapplethorpe’s depiction.
We’ve replaced AIDS and Nancy Reagan, with PrEP and gay marriage as topical gay clickbait. Maybe that cultural shift is what gives Mapplethorpe the breathing room needed to be thought of as a man and not a myth. Set to air on HBO, there’s something comical about the images of extreme BDSM practices being streamed to HD televisions across America. A major media company is meticulously reproducing the mannerist anuses that only 20 years ago drew apoplectic denunciations on the Senate floor.
At the same time, the film seems to believe the practices Mapplethorpe most famously documented are relics of 70’s hedonism: the popular narrative being that the AIDS epidemic bleached transgressive queer sex out of the social fabric. There’s a lot of ‘Oh back then!’ talk that overly historicizes Mapplethorpe’s work.
Watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of the first time I went to the Black Party. The orgiastic sex positive dance party has taken place in New York every March for the past 35 years. Being the homonormative newbie tourist that (if I’m being honest) I was, I thought nothing of wearing a sweater. When I entered and saw 500 gay men naked or in jockstraps and leather gear fisting, fucking, and dancing, I realized I had radically underestimated the degree to which ‘Oh back then!’ still resonates with ‘Yes, still, now.’ Despite the tremendous changes of the past 25 years, the desires Mapplethorpe documented are still with us today.