This documentary on Robert Mapplethorpe, whose graphic photos caused a furore in the late eighties as he was dying of AIDS, takes the viewer on a real journey, playing out more like a biopic.
As with most documentaries, there is the exploration of childhood and the scrounging around for evidence of Mapplethorpe's future talent. But there’s none to be found - despite his father’s interest in photography, Mapplethorpe not only had no talent behind the camera but wasn't even interested, considering it a lesser art form. In its stead there's a deluge of photos of his youth in the 50s in a typical American suburbia; Mapplethorpe, sister Nancy says, was always different to the other kids – a real devilish streak in him.
College beckoned and Mapplethorpe falls into a relationship with muse Patti Smith (he would go on to shoot the iconic cover for Smith's Horses) before accepting his homosexuality. He discovers his voice in collages of gay porn before finally realising that shooting his own images is far cheaper; the photographer seemed to be disinterested in deconstructions of his framing and the messages behind – he just took pictures of what looked different/cool/shocking.
There’s a great flow to Look At The Pictures – the interviews are short and snappy, linked together by the constant soundtrack and audio recordings from Mapplethorpe interviews – and it offers a real taste of New York, and its gay scene, in the seventies and eighties. All the work is given its full range as his style – the beautiful flowers, the insightful portraits of celebrities, and the hardcore S&M - developed over time
Unlike most documentaries, directors Bailey and Batero don't shy away from the uglier aspects of their subject – Mapplethorpe comes across like a cruel narcissist who will stop at nothing to achieve fame: "Everything was a means to an end to his career." Even lovers were there to pave his way to glory: "To be in Robert’s world you had to be either rich, famous, or sex", says a former lover, while Mapplethorpe admits himself that his affair with art curator Sam Wagstaff was career-driven: "If he didn’t have money I may not have gotten involved… Sam knew that." But the biggest insight is left for younger brother Edward, who is very open here about his hurt over the rocky relationship with his older brother.
Try and see on the biggest screen you can find.