In 1989, arch-conservative Senator Jesse Helms advised voters who didn’t believe he work of gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe was obscene to “look at the pictures.”
That same year, Mapplethorpe died from AIDS-releated illness.
A quarter-century later, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato—the team who behind everything from The Eyes of Tammy Faye to RuPaul’s Drag Race—are revisiting the boundary-pushing artist’s work and legacy with Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, airing on HBO on April 4.
Technically exquisite and thematically provocative, Mapplethorpe’s work titillated and outraged art lovers—and was fodder for right wing politicians looking to attack public funding of the arts.
His last show, “The Perfect Moment,” was also his most controversial: Bringing images of flowers, S&M pictures and male nudes together in a museum setting, it was canceled at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., thanks to Helms’ excoriation.
And when the show came to Cincinnati, the Contemporary Arts Center and its director, Dennis Barrie, were brought up on obscenity charges.
Coinciding with Mapplethorpe retrospectives at the Getty and LACMA, Look at the Pictures explores Mapplethorpe’s work and the interplay of his personal and professional lives. Friends and colleagues like Mary Boone, Carolina Herrera, Brooke Shields and Debbie Harry are interviewed, as are Mapplethorpe’s older sister, Nancy, and younger brother, Edward, who assisted him on many shoots.
The documentary utilizes archival material and never-before-seen photographs and footage to bring his work—and his life—to the screen. “Even his most shocking and forbidden images are included without blurs, without snickers—in other words, exactly as the artist intended,” say Bailey and Barbato.
Below, watch a trailer for Mapplethorpe: Look At The Pictures, premiering April 4 on HBO.