WHAT IT’S ABOUT Born in Hollis in 1946, and later raised in the Queens section of Floral Park, Robert Mapplethorpe went on to become one of the most famous photographers of the 20th century — and also most controversial, notably due to graphic pictures chronicling BDSM (bondage, dominance, sadomasochism) and much else. This film by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato is billed as the most comprehensive one ever on Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS in 1989.
MY SAY “Yeah, but is it art?” the underground cartoonist Robert Crumb once ironically asked of work that shattered the popular conception of what “art” is. (Like his own.) Yes, of course it is, he answered himself, and yeah, of course the work of Robert Mapplethorpe — which once turned the question into a raging culture wars debate — is art, too.
Or is some of it pornography? Occasionally both? Mapplethorpe apparently wasn’t entirely certain of the distinction and didn’t much worry about it either: He wanted to explode categorization, not be pigeonholed. Besides, it’s all academic now. His photos sell in the hundreds of thousands of dollars; there’s a J. Paul Getty Museum retrospective underway; and HBO’s “Look at the Pictures” arrives Monday.
Do indeed look at some of the pictures before watching. Despite what anyone tells you, some of those from the “X Portfolio” haven’t lost any of their power to shock. That may have been the intent, or an amplified expression of the moment in the early ’70s, when New York gay life and culture had blasted out of the closet. The party was just beginning and Mapplethorpe was a big part of that.
This otherwise excellent film doesn’t offer much in the way of context, perspective or analysis. Instead, you’re left to pick up those pieces yourself and — ill-equipped to that task — will throw up your hands in frustration. There may be good reasons why “Look at the Pictures” ignores analysis. For one, that’s almost a whole other film. For another, it can devolve into nonsense, as the brief discussion here of the famous portrait, “Ken Moody and Robert Sherman, 1984,” establishes.
But “Look at the Pictures” still desperately needs some, and for that could easily have gone to Mapplethorpe’s most eloquent champion, Patti Smith (she’s not interviewed here — no reason given):
“Robert took areas of dark human consent and made them into art,” she wrote in her 2010 memoir, “Just Kids.” “Without affectation, he created a presence that was wholly male without sacrificing feminine grace.”
Look at the pictures — or don’t. But maybe read the book first.
BOTTOM LINE Crystal-clear view of the trees. It’s the forest that’s out of focus.