Imagine - Mapplethorpe

Imagine - Mapplethorpe

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Review

In 1989, shortly after photographer Robert Mapplethorpe had died from an Aids-related illness at the age of 42, his self-curated exhibition The Perfect Moment prompted outraged Senator Jesse Helms to denounce him in Congress. By using his inflammatory words as the subtitle for their documentary, co-directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato have turned a homophobic accusation into an aesthetic exhortation, as they urge viewers to look again at pictures that were branded as pornographic and recognise their artistic merit.

Bailey and Barbato also strive to stress that Mapplethorpe was a two-time rebel, as not only did he break up with singer Patti Smith to explore his sexual options, but he also ditched painting and collage for its culturally poor relation of photography and soon had the great and the good queuing up to have their portraits taken. The likes of Debbie Harry and Brooke Shields gush over these works, while critics, models and friends discuss Mapplethorpe's floral still lifes and place them in the context of his Catholic background and New York bohemian heyday, when the patronage of lover Sam Wagstaff allowed him to flourish.

There's no question that the monochrome close-ups of male genitalia, bullwhips and BDSM gear are visually striking and politically strident. But, as will invariably be the case, the question of their beauty lies very much in the eye of the beholder.

Summary

Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato present an uncompromising portrait of controversial American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Based in New York, Mapplethorpe continually challenged the limits of acceptability via large-scale, highly stylised portraits of typically taboo subjects. His tendency to flirt with obscenity dominated his work until his death in 1989, and as the images he produced gained notoriety, he was posthumously denounced by conservative US senator Jesse Helms, who urged Congressmen to `look at the pictures' he had produced in his lifetime and decide for themselves whether they were suitable for public consumption. Here, Bailey and Barbato explain how Mapplethorpe's artistic flair was not only fuelled by what is now considered to be his genius eye, but also by his insatiable desire for celebrity.
Documentary Arts