West 23rd Street in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood hosted two very different memorials on Sunday. The entrance to the Hotel Chelsea flooded with flowers, candles, and handmade signs to pay respects to the recently deceased singer, poet, and artist Leonard Cohen, who immortalized it in his 1974 song “Chelsea Hotel No. 2.” Down the block, at Cinépolis Chelsea, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s new documentary Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures — screened as part of the DOC NYC film festival — paid tribute to photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who lived in the hotel early on in his career, in the 1970s.
“[Mapplethorpe] was a New York artist, and there was a time before the internet and Facebook and Instagram and social media and Twitter when artists had to be physically together in the same space,” Bailey said while introducing the film. For Mapplethorpe, this shared space was both the hotel in particular and the city in general.
Mapplethorpe used his time in Chelsea as a springboard to become one of the first photographers widely celebrated as a fine artist. His most famous images, meticulously composed in black and white, were an introduction for many living outside New York to the city’s gay subculture. Shortly after his death from complications related to AIDS in March 1989, Mapplethorpe became a target in the culture wars over the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) funding an exhibition of his work. In fact, the film derives its title from outraged North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms encouraging colleagues to “look at the pictures” in a tirade against the 1989 Mapplethorpe exhibition The Perfect Moment.
Barbato and Bailey’s film takes Helms’s suggestion as a statement of purpose. More than 500 of Mapplethorpe’s photographs — along with archival and recent interviews (including Debbie Harry, the obligatory interviewee for any documentary about art in 1980s New York) — chronicle the photographer’s life. The film thankfully devotes very few of its 108 minutes to the well-documented NEA controversy, instead providing a record of how Mapplethorpe blurred the boundaries between work and life by using lovers, friends, and himself as subjects.
Look at the Pictures provides a unique experience in displaying Mapplethorpe’s typically small-scale photographs on the large canvas of the cinema screen. For example, his 1984 photograph “Ken Moody and Robert Sherman” — which Moody and Sherman recreate in the documentary — is 25 5/8 by 22 inches on the museum wall, but the average movie screen can measure 30 feet diagonally. Seeing the iconic image at a dramatically larger size powerfully magnifies the contrasts in tone and shadow that are key to Mapplethorpe’s work.
Mapplethorpe’s unique use of stark, black-and-white imagery also informs the film’s re-enactments. Bailey and Barbato appropriate the artist’s visual language to render key moments in his life over narration taken from interviews with Mapplethorpe and others. The only human presence in these stylized reenactments is the occasional human hand, like the one seen preparing for the “going away” party Mapplethorpe gave as he was dying. The camera holds tightly on a tray of champagne flutes against a black background; they capture bright white light as they are filled with champagne. Hundreds of bubbles hurriedly zip to the surface and yield rapid-fire, sparkling pops. In using the photographer’s preferred palette, the directors unify their aesthetic with their subject’s.
However, the most powerful way that Bailey and Barbato pay tribute to Mapplethorpe is by foregrounding his perspective. “In the wake of his death and the scandal, a lot of people had to say a lot about Mapplethorpe,” Bailey said. “The one voice completely absent from that was Mapplethorpe’s own voice. In doing the research, we discovered all these interviews.” Incorporating these interviews — rediscovered as Bailey and Barbato delved into the archives of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation — truly makes the film a treasure trove of insight into artistic life and process. As fellow photographer and former lover Marcus Leatherdalde has said, “the only people he wanted in his life were rich people, famous people, and people he could have sex with.” Thanks to Bailey and Barbato’s film, viewers can achieve a more intimate understanding of Mapplethorpe.