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.
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.