The man leans over a chair, one leg up, body hunched, leather chaps exposing bare cheeks and a thick black whip winding its way out of his anus. His eyes look directly towards the camera. He is hiding nothing.

The black-and-white photograph is Robert Mapplethorpe’s iconic Self Portrait with Bullwhip. It was taken in 1978 and formed part of his notorious X Portfolio. Arseholes, penises, urophagia, BDSM, homosexuality, fisting, flowers, celebrity portraits and intimate moments; Mapplethorpe’s body of work is a confronting snapshot of life in New York during the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.

In 1989, Mapplethorpe’s life and career was cut short at 42 by AIDs. By then he’d shot the likes of Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono, Brooke Shields, Donald Sutherland and Annie Leibovitz. He’d amassed notoriety, fortune and sparked a national debate over homoeroticism and public funding of controversial artwork. But who was he?

That’s what directors Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey attempt to answer in their new feature-length documentary, Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures. “We’re attracted to stories about people who are over-exposed but under revealed,” says Bailey over the phone from the pair’s World of Wonder office on Hollywood Boulevard. “He definitely ticked that box for us.”

The pair has hundreds of raw documentaries and nonfiction television series under their belt, including RuPaul’s Drag Race, but this one is something special.

Photography fans will know Mapplethorpe as a master of his craft. Art collectors consider him an investment. Fans of Patti Smith and her memoir, Just Kids, will remember him as the androgynous, Polaroid-snapping boyfriend with whom she lived in poverty in the smallest room at Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel, home for more than a century to a colony of artists.

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Some might have seen his mid-career retrospective, The Perfect Moment, at The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The exhibition included a collection of portfolios: Y (still life flowers), Z (nude portraits of African-American men) and X which featured photographs of sadomasochism, including a man in a rubber suit with a hose attached to his mouth, and a pinkie inserted into a penis.

Some might remember the headlines that erupted when the Mapplethorpe Obscenity Trial took place in 1990 after Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Centre exhibited that same collection of works.

“Randy and I knew of him, we never met him, but we knew of him when we were living in the East Village in the mid-’80s,” says Bailey. “By then, he was a well-known artist. Like anybody else we were familiar with the headlines around the controversy, and the court case, but to tell you the truth, we never really thought to make a film about him until it was suggested to us by HBO. People knew about Mapplethorpe because of the scandal and the trial, but they didn’t really know much about him and his work, so it was a dream story to tell.”

It took two years of interviews and countless hours sifting through photographs to get to the heart of the story.

“It took forever,” says Barbato. “Over 500 of his photographs are featured in the film. He produced such an enormous amount of work in his short life.” The breadth of interviewees is gobsmacking, too.

“Robert was a serial collaborator and collected writers as friends,” says Bailey. “He wanted them to write about him. As he was dying he told a lot of his friends to make sure his story was told.”

The eclectic collection of interviewees includes Mapplethorpe’s father Harry; brother Edward (also a photographer); former staff; and partners and subjects, such as artist David Croland (“People hustled Robert. Mainly out of his pants. Me too, by the way”); Blondie’s Debbie Harry; writers Bob Colacello and Fran Lebowitz (“he looked like a ruined cupid”); art critic Carol Squiers; fashion designer Carolina Herrera; actor Robert Sherman; subject Ken Moody; photographer Marcus Leatherdale (“everything was a means to the end of his career”); friend and porn star Peter Berlin (“in order to be Mapplethorpe, you had to work hard”); Jack Fritscher, former lover and founder and editor of Drummer magazine (“he wanted to be a legend. A story told in bedrooms at night around the world”); and biographer Patricia Morrisroe (“he was looking for God in a black man”).

Footage of Mapplethorpe with his former partner, the late Sam Wagstaff, is featured, too. “A lot of people knew him and knew different aspects of him. How do you reconcile that?” asks Bailey.

“There is this incredible cast of colourful characters in this film, but at the centre is Robert Mapplethorpe himself,” says Barbato. “We really focused on trying to find audio tapes, to listen to him and look at his pictures. That’s really the spine of the film. He’s the star and the narrator and then there’s this incredible Greek chorus. “

With great art, comes responsibility.

“It’s a lot of pressure,” says Barbato. “We didn’t just make a film about his life. We made a film about New York in one of the most special times in the history of that city, when there was this exciting explosion of art and culture. It was a responsibility to this whole world of art and music and at times we were paralysed with fear and anxiety about getting it right.”

From the back room of nightclub and restaurant Max’s Kansas City (a melting pot of creative New York artists in the ’70s); cobblestoned Bond Street; and Mineshaft, a former members-only BDSM gay bar and sex club where Mapplethorpe went for titillation and to find models, they cover it all.

“Robert was very honest, open and transparent,” says Bailey. “He lived his life to document his life. Whether it was the photographs he took, or the things he was into.”

Mapplethorpe lives on through his work. Before his death, he set up a foundation to support AIDs research and fine-art photography. In 2011, the Mapplethorpe Foundation gave the Getty Museum and LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) work valued at $38 million.

As the film screens across the globe, the directors hope it inspires people to live their lives with Mapplethorpe-like authenticity.

“We tried to think, ‘What would Mapplethorpe do?’” says Bailey. “I don’t think Mapplethorpe would have wanted a portrait that was a puff piece. He’d want something that was beautiful, but not false.”

Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures premieres exclusively at the Essential Independents: American Cinema, Now Film Festival at Palace Cinemas in Sydney on May 17; Melbourne on May 18; and Brisbane and Adelaide on May 19.

Enter here for your chance to win a double pass to our Sydney preview screening of Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures.