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GayWatch: Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures (HBO Documentary Films)

Robert Mapplethrope is a gay trailblazer in the art, film and photography world. His career catapulted the gay culture of gay sex, fetish, body positivity and more into the mainstream art world. A world that was highly conservative and high brow.

The film begins with the backdrop of the archive and vault held by his foundation – The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. An organization that promote and cultivates the life and life’s work of its founder. Then the film flips to a congressional hearing about the controversy surrounding his artwork, which was of the pornographic nature, should be banned from public viewing because of its vulgarity and obscene format.

The documentary tells life of Robert Mapplethorpe through the interview and voices of family, lovers, friends, and collaborators past and present who shares their thoughts and memories of their moments with the artist. From beginning days of childhood from his upbringing in Long Island, New York to his transition to living in New York City while attending the Pratt Institute. During this time, he was dating Patti Smith, his companion and muse for his earlier works of art. After Patti’s departure, Robert explores his sexuality and starts dating men explorations of sex, fetish specifically, BDSM; Bondage, Discipline, Domination and Submission, Sadomasochism, in a black and white imagery.

The film also highlights the duality of Mapplethorpe’s life with rubbing elbows in high society in uptown Manhattan then gay dwelling at the Mineshaft, a gay members-only BDSM and sex club, in downtown Manhattan. This lifestyle is the undertone of the film and illustrates the various circle many gay men live in New York City which also serves the hidden star with interviewers describing what life was like living in New York City in the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. His other work included flowers, one in particular, the Calla Lilly he’s so famously known for as well as self-portrait, and celebrity portraits. His success was achieved by his ambition and his financial backer and companion, Sam Wagstaff which led to Mapplethorpe meeting many influencers and art curators to promote his work.

The film was amazing with its honesty that could be reflected by HBO and it’s reputation for exploring the most authentic and intriguing figures in American history. The filmmakers, Fenton Bailey & Randy Barbato, get some amazing perspective from Mapplethorpe’s siblings about his character growing up which added depth and warmth to his ambitious persona illustrated throughout the film. I was fascinated in how driven he was even though he didn’t have the technical and educational experience one would think one needs to be a successful photographer.

One of the things that stood out to me was how his lovers were inspiration and how we went from dating white guys to black men. This love journey that Mapplethorpe went on reflected in his body of work with one of the most infamous portrait titled Man in Polyester suit; an image of a black man from the chest down in a polyester suit with fly unzipped with an large uncut penis. His portraits of the black male body didn’t come off as being exploitation because his subjects were never mocked or degraded in his work. In addition, Robert would often take self-portraits include provocative portrait of Robert bent over a stool with a leather tassle impaled in his anus. He had the foresight to see the impact of photograph in a graphic matter pushed the envelope in modern visual art.

Mapplethorpe’s lifestyle in the ’70s still resonate with gay lifestyle in present day with queer people learning to live in two different worlds of hanging out with straight community and the gay community. One interviewer stated that Robert would hobnob with UES elite then head downtown to the Mineshaft to have sex in the dark room. His life to came to a tragic end with the epidemic AIDS crisis plaguing the gay community in the 1980s and Robert passed away in 1989 at the ripe age of 42 years old. I found this film remarkable as well as heartwarming, provocative and sexy all in one. This film is a must watch for any gay man who wants to learn about pioneers in the gay community left a massive impact on the gay community and the culture.

Check out the trailer for the documentary below and you can still watch the film on HBO Max.


Courtesy of HBO Documentary Films


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