The Life and Controversial Work of Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe Profiled in 1988 Documentary

In March 1988, the BBC’s Are­na turned its lens toward pho­tog­ra­ph­er Robert Map­plethor­pe. The tele­vi­sion doc­u­men­tary series had already spent well over a decade cul­ti­vat­ing a rep­u­ta­tion for cov­er­ing every­thing—Super­man, Philip K. Dick, the fall­en Sovi­et empire, the Ford Cortina—but some view­ers must still have felt a bit star­tled by the choice of such a con­tro­ver­sial artist, let alone by how mild and non-threat­en­ing he ulti­mate­ly seems. Map­plethor­pe had made his name both in por­trai­ture, espe­cial­ly of musi­cians, and in high­ly charged erot­ic imagery. This lat­ter cur­rent in his work, did not, of course, please every­body. By the time the Are­na pro­file aired, Map­plethor­pe, suf­fer­ing from AIDS, would have only one year of life remain­ing, with the worst of the high-pro­file bat­tles over his artis­tic val­ue and/or “obscen­i­ty” still to come.

Though wary of extin­guish­ing the mys­tery of his pho­tographs by say­ing too much about them, Map­plethor­pe does reveal what sounds like an impor­tant ele­ment of his moti­va­tion, espe­cial­ly in the face of the obscen­i­ty charges: “I want­ed to retain the for­bid­den feel­ing of pornog­ra­phy and make an art state­ment, to make some­thing unique­ly my own.” We see the man at work, and we hear a good deal more from him in an on-cam­era inter­view. Nov­el­ist Edmund White appears to pro­vide con­text and com­men­tary, as do sev­er­al of the peo­ple Map­plethor­pe pho­tographed, both those who sought fame and those who oth­er­wise avoid­ed it. Cov­er­ing Map­plethor­pe’s life as much as it does his work, the broad­cast nat­u­ral­ly includes a con­ver­sa­tion with Pat­ti Smith, not­ed rock­er and per­haps the pho­tog­ra­pher’s clos­est friend. For ide­al sup­ple­men­tary read­ing, have a look at Smith’s Map­plethor­pe-cen­tric mem­oir Just Kids, about which we’ve post­ed before.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Pat­ti Smith Remem­bers Robert Map­plethor­pe

Pat­ti Smith Reads Her Final Words to Robert Map­plethor­pe

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on lit­er­a­ture, film, cities, Asia, and aes­thet­ics. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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