In the cool white vaults of the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, curators tend to the archive of the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The reverence befits a collection with an estimated value of $38m. They consider the black and white images of sexual adventure that once enraged the American religious right: “Ah,” one nods. “Mapplethorpe and bullwhip.” Anyone unfamiliar with that shot may find themselves squinting to confirm what they’re seeing.
So begins the spry new documentary Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, appreciative of its subject’s gifts, frank about his flaws. You can also use it as a guide to the 1980s art world and the journey of Manhattan from scuzzy bohemia to real estate gold mine.
With a life this eye-catching, directors Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey keep their own approach restrained, mixing stills and talking heads (siblings, exes). The childhood home of Floral Park, Queens is “a good place to leave”, just as the downtown New York of 1970 was a good place to arrive. Those with a passion for the punk mythos of New York will thrill to Mapplethorpe and then lover Patti Smith checking into the Chelsea Hotel; those with property in contemporary NoHo will thrill to the prices that are casually mentioned later.
Smith’s meagre cash would be spent on Polaroid film for Robert to take his earliest portraits; Mapplethorpe was always generous in letting others support his talent. After Smith, the role is taken by Sam Wagstaff, the older boyfriend who provides a gateway to Mustique, the private island whose guests include a semi-friendly Andy Warhol. Back in New York, life divides between the glitz of the Upper West Side and the pleasures of The Mineshaft, the gay S&M club where he switches between photographing the patrons and joining the fun. The pictures he took there made him famous.
“There is no word for it,” an ex-boyfriend smiles as he ponders Mapplethorpe’s ambition. Money is always an issue. It only feels right when, in 2014, a quarter century after his death, his celebrated photograph “Ken Moody and Robert Sherman” is projected on to the Nasdaq building.
Despite floating a link between a Catholic upbringing and a love of sexual ritual, Barbato and Bailey don’t affect to be psychologists. Then again, friends agree, Mapplethorpe wasn’t one for soul searching. Perfecting surfaces was his thing, spending hours removing blemishes from portraits (or instructing his assistants to). If his legacy is the collectors’ market in photography, his method is reflected in a billion perfect selfies. The art lives on. The artist? He is remembered as good company, rarely argumentative. Usually, a former lover recalls, he was too self-absorbed to care.