Berlinale 2016: 'Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures' is Wildly Inspiring
by Alex Billington
February 23, 2016
As an avid photographer myself, I truly love coming across a documentary that expands my mind about the artistic qualities and emotional power of excellent photography. Along with The Salt of the Earth (about legendary photographer Sebastião Salgado), the documentary Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures is the latest to leave me floored. This utterly inspiring and eye-opening doc examines the (entire) life of Robert Mapplethorpe, a controversial gay photographer whose work was banned from museums in the 90s because it was deemed too obscene. Boy were they wrong. Hearing him talk about his life and then seeing the photos he produced - I couldn't help repeating in my mind, "this guy is a true master of photography." Seriously.
Robert Mapplethorpe never studied photography and had a fairly standard childhood. He eventually started exploring his sexuality while growing up and moved to New York City (spending time at the Hotel Chelsea), inspired primarily by Andy Warhol, producing work that took some time to get recognized because it was so radical. In addition to taking photos of flowers, he eventually started to fall in love with men's bodies. The work he produced that some thought was obscene involved nude men in rubber suits, and unobstructed erections shown prominently; though his most controversial shot involves a bullwhip stuck up his own butt in a piece titled "Self Portrait with Whip". As weird as it sounds explaining it (if you haven't seen these shots already), the doc does such a great job telling his story it's impossible to deny this is actually art at its finest.
In fact, most of what the doc touches upon is that Mapplethorpe was one of the first photographers to prove that photography is one of the fine arts along with sculpting, painting, drawing and so on. This is accepted and understood in society today, but when he was working it was still being debated. The most fascinating moments involve Mapplethorpe explaining how he never studied photography, and didn't care about classic artistic theory, instead he woke up every day and took photos of whatever interested him - mainly the men he spent the night with just before. His photographs of the male body, graphic as they may be, are stunning works of art. Anytime it would show his finished pieces I would be left in awe, and it was refreshing to hear explanations behind all of this work directly from archived interviews with him as well as audio recordings.
There's one moment I still can't stop thinking about. One of his iconic photos shows the bald heads of two men, one white, one black, both looking in the same direction. Critics, curators and art aficionados have analyzed this photograph extensively, claiming that every last detail is deeply philosophical and expressive, their positioning so perfect. Yet when they talk to the two models in the photo, they admit - there wasn't that much thought put into it. They are positioned the way they are simply because one of them has a longer neck, and Robert liked him better being positioned in front of the other person, extending over his shoulder. That's it. As crazy as it sounds, that's so inspiring to me, because it reminds me that great art is not about what the critics say but what is captured and created in the moment by the artist, as simple as that may be.
I cannot recommend this documentary more to any and every photographer or artist out there. It will leave you inspired and rejuvenated by the spirit of Robert Mapplethorpe. And it tears down the absurd obscenity claims, proving that truly great art will almost always be controversial, but most importantly it will stand the test of time. And it will go on to influence and inspire other artists for many years. I'm so glad I saw this.
Alex's Berlinale 2016 Rating: 9 out of 10
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