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HBO’s ‘Look at the Pictures’ is as explicit as its subject, Robert Mapplethorpe

Documentary filmmakers Randy Barbato, left, and Fenton Bailey
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

In his life and especially in the stories told of his life, Robert Mapplethorpe has represented a multitude of identities and meanings.

He created elegant photographs of flowers and celebrities and documented a sexual underground in pictures that helped ignite a battle over free expression that continued well after his death in 1989. He was an ambitious Catholic kid from Queens who, like his early lover and comrade Patti Smith, rose to fame as a creative force from the Boho squalor of New York City. And his reputation lives on as a still-controversial icon of the LGBT community.

“When you put them all together, the totality gives you Mapplethorpe,” says Randy Barbato, co-director of a feature documentary, “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures,” debuting Monday night on HBO. “There was an intensity to his honesty and his intimacy with all kinds of people.”

The documentary created by Barbato and longtime collaborator Fenton Bailey was two years in the making, arriving amid a reexamination of the photographer sparked by an unprecedented joint exhibition at the Getty and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The filmmakers insist their timing was coincidental to last month’s opening of “Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium,” a comprehensive retrospective at both museums made possible through the joint acquisition of the photographer’s work and archival materials from the foundation he created in his name. “Look at the Pictures” had its Los Angeles premiere March 15 on the big screen of LACMA’s Bing Theatre.

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“I can’t help but think that somehow we’re part of this master plan of his,” Bailey says playfully of the photographer, whose gifts included the shrewd marketing of his work and persona. Mapplethorpe’s self-portraits were central, portraying himself in various moods and guises, from street tough to sex toy or a demon in plastic novelty store horns to finally, the fully realized artist facing premature death at age 42 from AIDS.

The full life of Mapplethorpe, who would have turned 70 this year, is told in the documentary, but the film inevitably focuses significant time on the sexually charged images of his most personal work. It opens in 1989 with footage of Republican Sen. Jesse Helms angrily holding a Mapplethorpe photograph on the U.S. Senate floor, enraged that federal funds from the National Endowment for the Arts were involved with an exhibition of the work. He implored his colleagues: “Look at the pictures, just look at the pictures…"

The film explores Mapplethorpe’s relationship with patron, lover and influential collector Sam Wagstaff and the connections between the photographer’s active personal life and crucial phases of his work. He was a perfectionist with incomplete technical skills but had ambitions for Warhol-like fame, nearly approaching his goal at the time of his death.

Among the film’s almost 500 Mapplethorpe images are selections from his “X” portfolio, with carefully composed pictures of bondage, male anatomy and sadomasochistic sex acts. By simply showing the work on camera, the documentary is as explicit as its subject. “He said it’s the most important pictures he ever took, so he put it front and center,” says Bailey. “That was a guiding principal in making the whole film. … He saw sex and photography both as magic.”

An early scene in the film features curators from the two Los Angeles museums carefully examining, with gloved hands, photographs and other artifacts from Mapplethorpe’s life. One item is a weathered membership card for the Mine Shaft, a bondage-themed gay sex club frequented by Mapplethorpe for a time and where he found subjects for his most explicit pictures. It is signed by the artist, right above the line: “a member in good standing.”

“We’re in a climate-controlled room at the Getty Institute, one of the most expensive architectural masterpieces of the 20th century, with the most incredible resources for preserving things. And all of us are all standing there looking at this card, and it’s sort of absurd,” recalls Bailey. “Yes, it’s funny, but that doesn’t mean it’s not serious.”

The idea for a Mapplethorpe documentary came during a meeting with HBO, which has commissioned Bailey and Barbato to create several acclaimed films under their World of Wonder production company. There were no discussions about what could or could not be shown, and they were not asked to remove anything from the finished film.

“We’ve made a lot of films for HBO, so they’re usually very respectful. They knew who Mapplethorpe was and who we are as filmmakers,” says Barbato.

The culture has moved to a different, more open place since the Reagan ‘80s and Clinton ‘90s, and the battles over censorship and public funding for the arts. “S&M has become a fashion runway look,” says Bailey, but Mapplethorpe’s work still cuts through the multimedia noise.

“We have access to explicit imagery just by opening up our computer,” adds Barbato. “As sexually commodified as our culture is, we’re equally as puritanical. We have a split personality as a culture. That’s why Mapplethorpe is so exciting and interesting and important — especially now.”

In the ‘80s, before settling on filmmaking, the duo had a New York-based underground dance-pop group called the Fabulous Pop Tarts. They were aware of Mapplethorpe’s presence while living in the East Village but never saw him. The documentary was a chance to catch up.

“Mapplethorpe was a particular passion that really took us away from things in a bigger way,” Barbato says of the project. “It felt more personal.”

One close Mapplethorpe collaborator not interviewed for the film was Smith, his onetime muse and cultural co-conspirator during their crucial early years in New York. Smith never made herself available to the directors. Instead, they used existing recordings of Smith speaking of their youth, the subject of her 2010 memoir “Just Kids,” winner of the National Book Award.

“In a weird way, it became like a gift for us, because she is in the film to the extent that she was in his life,” says Barbato. “We loved ‘Just Kids,’ and we love Patti, but it really became apparent that we wanted him to narrate this film, and she casts a long shadow. It was important that the true narrator of this film was Mapplethorpe.”

steve.appleford@latimes.com

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‘Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures’

Where: HBO

When: 9 p.m. Monday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)


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