At January’s Sundance Film Festival, many people went to see Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s documentary “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” freighted with expectations. Now the well-reviewed portrait of the artist is finally airing on HBO, as several major exhibitions of his art are on view at the LA County and Getty museums as well as Norway and the U.K.
Several questions raised by the documentary—like, where was Patti Smith, who memorably wrote her memoir “Just Kids” for her first big love?— are answered below by New York producer and art expert Katharina Otto-Bernstein (“Absolute Wilson”), whose Film Manufacturers Inc. backs international narrative and documentaries.
Still in the works: Matt Smith of Doctor Who fame is set to play Mapplethorpe in Ondi Timoner’s feature starring Zosia Mamet (“Girls”) as Patti Smith.
Anne Thompson: The movie focuses mostly on Mapplethorpe the artist.
Katharina Otto-Bernstein: It’s also about him as a human being, even more than as an artist. The whole project came together after [HBO Doc czar] Sheila [Nevins] originated the idea. She came to me; we did “Absolute Wilson” together. And I met Mapplethorpe when he first came to New York.
How old was he?
Age 38 or so, I was 18 (laughs)! He’s really the first artist who used photography as a medium, because he never wanted to be a photographer, he wanted to be an artist, he painted with his camera. He was so influential for people like Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, later on Stroud, Gursky, there’s a whole birth that came out of his daring to rule-break in photographs, not only for the gay community. Because in the 60s and 70s, it was very very taboo, he was out there. The pictures shock even now.
Mapplethorpe was brutally honest; he was more than an honest photographer, he was a documentarian. He documented his own lifestyle by putting it blatantly out there, which made it more comfortable for other people to embrace their lifestyles. There’s a socio-political angle to this.
He was a performance artist too.
Yes. Photography was a bastard of the arts. Steichen, for example, was a famous photographer, not a famous artist. With Mapplethorpe, people say he was a famous artist. I spoke to Jeff Koons. He said he always had two Mapplethorpes hanging in his bedroom when he first started out. He knew him, he enjoyed his art. The Tureen series was his heterosexual version of Mapplethorpe, who was very important for many artists.
Why isn’t Patti Smith in the film?
We would have loved to have her in the film. She didn’t make that possible. It was a good thing because it made us dig deeper. The conclusion was: his life has been told through the eyes of Patti Smith and Sam Wagstaff, and not everyone else’s. We uncovered all his tape material, an audio diary. He narrates the film; he tells you who the important people in his life were. He’s brutally honest about why he was with certain people. It’s clear they all represented so many more relationships in this film, other than those two, they all represented a part of his life. His last boyfriend, who lived with him in the 80s, was with him much longer. Everybody was an inspiration and a muse, everyone brought him to something very different.
With Patti Smith he was doing collage and Polaroids like Rauschenberg and Warhol, respectively; they couldn’t stand each other then. That changed when he met Wagstaff, suddenly he and Warhol photographed each other! With Wagstaff he really discovered photography. Wagstaff was a cutting edge curator who later became much more classical. Mapplethorpe helped him to really come out, and Wagstaff helped him by buying him a Hasselblad and pushing him into the limelight and introducing him to the right people.
After the Egg series, when Mapplethorpe’s work turned to the black nudes he was so famous for, he only had black lovers. He dove into a completely different world. Patti didn’t live in New York. They had separate lives and he went onto something completely different. Most biographies either deal with Patti or Sam, this only deals with him.