Edward Mapplethorpe interview: "I wish I could rescript the story"
We talk to the brother of Robert Mapplethorpe – controversial homoerotic photographer, Patti Smith's lover and Andy Warhol's biggest rival – about compelling new documentary Look at the Pictures
I meet Edward Mapplethorpe in Berlin, in a restaurant at the top of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. There’s a surrounding buzz: it’s the middle of the film festival and the hotel is teeming with journalists and fans hoping to catch a glimpse of the celebrities.
As Edward arrives, he immediately recognises a raucous group of people at a nearby table, and they all greet one another enthusiastically.
With piercing blue eyes behind wire-framed glasses, at fifty-six Edward Mapplethorpe is strikingly handsome. He has none of Robert's mystery – instead there’s an openness to Edward’s face that makes him instantly likeable. A tiny silver chin stud, barely noticeable, is the only hint at his inner rebel.
We’re here to discuss Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures – an uncensored look at Edward's brother Robert: one the most controversial photographers of all time. Robert was the first photographer to see the medium as a legitimate art form – and he shook the art world in the '60s and '70s with explicit homoerotic photographs of himself, his friends, and his lovers.
As we begin speaking, the raucous crowd next to us let out a burst of laughter. Edward shushes them in a mock-scolding tone. They giggle.
Mapplethorpe Nude (Fragment)
We begin by discussing the shocking nature of Robert's work – so pornographic in its depictions of homosexual men that his final, posthumous exhibition was sued by Cincinatti for obscenity in 1990. “Those leather and S&M pictures, the pictures that started this whole controversy were done in the late ‘70s" says Edward, "that’s almost 40 years ago.”
Edward thinks the pictures reflected a more liberal period of history. “It’s a strange time right now…In America, you look at the political scene that’s going on now, with the Republicans and the Evangelicals, it seems to be getting more and more conservative. I think that’s why this is a good time for the film to come out.”
Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures trailer
The filmmakers interviewed everyone close to Robert: from family member to friend; porn star to priest. But Patti Smith, with whom Robert had a long term relationship, is notably absent.
“They didn’t want this film to be about Patti’s relationship with Robert. It’s one period and it’s a very important one…that period which she wrote Just Kids about." says Edward. "In a way, not having Patti allowed them the freedom to let other people speak – to let Robert be the narrator of this.” Indeed, the film includes never-before heard recordings by Robert himself: building up to a picture of the man – a picture that is not always flattering.
A few years younger than his brother, Edward was awestruck by Robert's appearance and his unapologetic approach to his subjects. In the documentary, Edward describes looking up at Robert and Patti, thinking that "they were like creatures." Fascination with his brother spurred an artistic career for Edward too: he went to work in Robert’s studio with him, developing his photographs.
Patti Smith & Edward Mapplethorpe
It must have been a strange period of awakening for the young Edward. Robert had frequent lovers around the house, in various states of undress and donning S&M attire, and the photographs he took were incredibly explicit. One of Robert Mapplethorpe's most iconic self-portraits is of himself naked, looking directly at the camera, with a bullwhip inserted in his anus. Not the kind of everyday image a young Catholic boy sees of his elder brother.
But, says Edward, none of it bothered him. "I’m a heterosexual man and I am very secure with my sexuality, so I felt very comfortable in that environment, just taking breaks at the end of the day, smoking a joint with him, and sort of looking at the photographs."
"But yeah, sometimes we’d be photographing somebody, they would go to the restroom, we’d do a little buck of coke. It wasn’t a druggy atmosphere – I mean it was a business, it was taken very seriously – but we’d have our fun as well."
Patti Smith by Robert Mapplethorpe
These were the moments, says Edward, when Robert would cease to be a figure of curiosity: to reveal his less secure side – a side very few saw. Robert, says Edward, "would say things like “I don’t understand why my photographs come out as well as they do. ‘ And I’d say to him: Robert don’t start questioning this. This is not something to think about... it just… is. There would be times when he would let down his vulnerability to me. And I treasure those moments.”
But, as Edward grew more confident, he began finding his feet as an artist in his own right – and this didn't sit well with his brother. “I didn’t want to be his assistant for the rest of my life and wanted to do my own thing. And then, him not accepting that – the instance of the name change – it certainly had to somewhat impact my respect for the man.”
The 'name change' to which he's referring reveals his brother's less pleasant side. As Edward's talent grew, Robert was threatened by his success, demanding Edward change his name from Mapplethorpe to 'Maxey', in order, he said, to stop him from “riding on his coat-tails.”
“I was certainly hurt and confused by that” says Edward, for once looking stern. “To this day I try to make sense out of it.” But, despite all this, he says, "changing my name didn't change me. It was just a title. I still lived up to the Mapplethorpe name. I’m sitting here today because my sense of awe is still with me.”
As his work became more and more famous, Robert took an increasing number of celebrity commissions: portraits of everyone from Debbie Harry to Brook Shields, Isabella Rossellini to Andy Warhol, his greatest rival. Robert Mapplethorpe often said his life's ambition was to become "more famous" than his Pop Art contemporary – a hint at the unparalleled drive that lay behind his work.
"Rob was taking some very, very beautiful, and beautifully lit, and beautifully composed photographs before I came in the picture," says Edward. "I think if you look through the archives you can see changes occurring in the early 80s into the mid-80s. They got very good, almost too perfect – like the skin, it had to be so creamy white."
“I often say that I wish I could rescript the story,” says Edward, “Not so much in the work that Robert did – it didn’t have anything to do with my brother as an artist, I wouldn’t change anything about that – but I certainly would change some of his characteristics. He was a complicated, unapologetic character."
"He was a determined human being, with a focus on being successful. I think he almost had a permission to do that, because he really did have a particular talent and eye. And he was determined for people to see that.”
Edward laughs. But his eyes turn sad when he mentions his brother’s untimely death. “Unfortunately, when I refer to rescripting the story, I certainly would have him still living. To die at 42 years of age is to die a very young man, but he worked tirelessly, and gave the world a lot of work in those 42 years.”
Andy Warhol by Robert Mapplethorpe
Robert Mapplethorpe was diagnosed with HIV in the mid '80s, and died not long afterwards. "He wasn’t the only one we lost" says Edward, sadly. "We lost a whole, whole crew of beautiful creative people, not only in New York but throughout the whole world. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time for that one, for sure."
Upon Robert's diagnosis, the crowds swarmed: everybody wanted their portrait taken by him while they still had the chance. The image of circling vultures, of the media frenzy, is a disturbing one – but, says Edward, it didn't upset Robert; quite the opposite. He had always seen taking advantage of others as essential to his own success, and upon his diagnosis, he threw himself a lavish 'going-away party'. "I don’t think he ever felt used or anything like that" says Edward. "Even his illness, being HIV positive, his dying – he somehow was able to use that to his advantage. As strange as that might sound, it’s the truth."
"But it was also a means to an end. I don’t mean that literally. It was a way of continuing on generating the interest. The controversy, and all of that – didn’t happen until after he died."
In many ways, Robert Mapplethorpe achieved his aim. His work continues to shock and appall, perhaps even more so today than it ever did. Mapplethorpe: Look At The Pictures is a long overdue opportunity to survey all of Robert Mapplethorpe's work, from the most explicit, pornographic portraits to his most exquisitely poised flowers. It is a fascinating tribute to a rare creative genius.
Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures: UK release date 22 April.