Robert Mapplethorpe’s Polaroids—taken 1970-75, when the artist was 23 to 29 years old—document his emerging identity, both artistic and sexual. The book Polaroids: Mapplethorpe, published to accompany an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, reveals a photographer determined to bring formal rigor to the medium’s intimacy. Mapplethorpe, who died in 1989, used Polaroids as instruments of exploration, not unlike a painter’s sketches, capturing the people and things he saw every day, while developing themes he would pursue throughout his career.
The volume’s largely biographical essay by Sylvia Wolf points out that Mapplethorpe initially turned to Polaroids simply because of their convenience. Before the advent of digital photography, photographers received instant results—and gratification—from these images. Wolf, formerly curator of photography at the Whitney and now director of the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, also reminds readers of photography’s low status in the art world of that time. It’s hard to believe that the first auction of fine-art photography in America didn’t take place until 1975, at Sotheby’s.
For all of Mapplethorpe’s notoriously fleshy imagery, perhaps the most “revealing” picture in the book shows the 16-year-old Robert in an ROTC uniform. Taken by his father, an amateur photographer who had a darkroom in the basement of the family’s home in Queens, the snapshot presents Mapplethorpe (who had graduated early from high school and entered New York’s Pratt Institute) as a tall, thin boy wearing a bow tie. The interior of his childhood home is remarkably nondescript, a small clock on the wall, the television playing behind the young man. Mapplethorpe described his childhood as safe but also confining, and here we see why.
Mapplethorpe took about 1,500 Polaroids during this five-year period, initially with a Polaroid Model 360 and then with a Graflex mounted with a Polaroid back that made slightly larger prints. This phase ended when his patron and lover Sam Wagstaff gave him a Hasselblad. With its square viewing frame and increased precision, the camera cast the die for Mapplethorpe’s mature style.
Early Polaroids involved peeling open the print and coating it with a fixing solution. This process required careful timing that Mapplethorpe, at least initially, hadn’t mastered. That explains why certain images appear overexposed. In a 1970 series depicting Patti Smith in a Chelsea Hotel bathroom, for instance, there’s a pronounced lightness that, along with some brushstrokes of paint across the images, gives the work a distinctly self-conscious feel. Later images of Smith are more successful. They are undoctored views of a dear friend whose face alternates between pride, defiance and piercing beauty.
The photographs improve as the alterations disappear and the images become more direct, with Mapplethorpe letting his subjects, particularly the intense Smith, convey their personalities without embellishment. Not all the subjects share her contained fervor. Wolf describes some of the portraits as having “a touch of Victorian wistfulness.” There’s a dreamy shot of socialite Nicky Weymouth, caught as she leans into the frame, her hair floating up as if she were swimming under-water. She seems entirely detached from the everyday world.
Mapplethorpe was an artist attracted to icons (the famous and the famous-looking), though even his most stylized work can convey intimacy. It was interesting to compare the book, where the photos are shown one-by-one on textless pages, like images lovingly salvaged from an old drawer, to the exhibition, where, framed on the walls, they read as considerably more formal art objects. In this instance, a book may be a better setting than a gallery. It’s no surprise that Mapplethorpe kept many Polaroids in private notebooks. The Whitney catalogue has the quality of a journal, and, turning the pages, we see that the artist became increasingly at ease not only with his medium but also with motifs he associated with homosexuality.
Even at Polaroid scale Mapplethorpe’s work has narrative strength. There’s a shot of a bed with the covers pulled back, revealing pillows lying like exhausted bodies. The floral bedspread lends a poignant quality to the image, and it feels like we’ve intruded past a “Do Not Disturb” sign at the site of a motel tryst.
Several shots of Wagstaff are formally posed nudes. An exception, however, is one of him reclining, hands behind head, with the flash reflecting off his raised thigh. Wagstaff looks directly into the camera with a familiarity that cannot be misunderstood. The picture’s spontaneity gives it a frank, conspiratorial air.
The small format suits a 1972 shot of artist and model David Croland. The subject is shirtless, wearing a vest and bow tie, and his mouth is bound with black tape. He lies a tiled floor. The vertically formatted print, just over 4 by 3 inches, struggles to contain his narrow frame. It’s as if Croland’s role as Mapplethorpe’s first male lover cannot be spoken, and we feel the tense wordlessness.
The self-portraits include a telling shot that Mapplethorpe made by simply holding the camera at arm’s length and turning it on himself. He’s slightly out of focus, gazing up at the lens, squinting slightly and looking into the light, very much like someone learning to see. The work from this period is transitional, replete with themes that will run through the artist’s mature work: the love of formal power, gay and religious iconography, and strong passions that struggle against their bounds.
In a 1988 BBC television documentary, Mapplethorpe said, “Once I had taken a photograph, it wasn’t shocking to me anymore. I had been through the experience.” Seeing his Polaroids decades after their creation, a viewer is struck less by any extreme provocation than by Mapplethorpe’s unvarnished examination of personal desire. The photographs are physical evidence of what the artist felt, proof of whom he sought out and loved.
Look closer, he says, I lived this.
David Coggins is a writer based in New York.