On the Town

Instant Gratification

Robert Mapplethorpe’s Polaroids expose the development of an artist.

By Steve Wiecking September 16, 2009 Published in the October 2009 issue of Seattle Met

Untitled (Jay Johnson), 1973/75.
Collection of Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by Permission.

To view a slideshow of images from the exhibit, click HENRY ART GALLERY’S director Sylvia Wolf recalls the day she gained new insight into an artist known for putting everything out into the open. Given access to the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation archives in New York, Wolf asked to see anything less familiar by Mapplethorpe (1946–1989), something beyond the photographer’s popular catalog of immaculately composed, infamously homoerotic nudes. The archivist said nothing, just smiled and took Wolf to a room where, on a top shelf, a group of three-ring binders held Polaroids in plastic sleeves. Wolf flipped through page after page of sometimes breathtakingly intimate pictures. “I actually felt,” she says now, “like I was reading a diary.”

The Henry’s Polaroids: Mapplethorpe show, which Wolf first curated for the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2008, offers what does indeed resemble 90 entries from the photographic journal of a man discovering—with considerable conviction—both himself and his art in the years 1970 to 1975. “I wanted to do an exhibition that would give these objects some authority,” Wolf explains. “I wanted people to just look at them as objects in and of themselves—not just as shades of things to come.”

In 1970 Mapplethorpe, who had only recently begun exploring his sexuality, was sharing a flat in New York’s Chelsea Hotel with future rock star Patti Smith. He wasn’t yet a photographer but, already fascinated with nudes, he created mixed-media collages using photos torn from porno magazines. Since the magazines were wrapped in protective plastic, he couldn’t flip through them before purchase to determine if they had the kinds of poses he desired. Filmmaker friend Sandy Daley loaned him her Polaroid camera. Now he could take his own pictures instead of buying them.

The loan set Mapplethorpe free in other ways. “This is where he learned to see photographically,” says Wolf. “The instant nature of the Polaroid is crucial. He was able to see, take a photo, then quickly adjust.” Smith proved a natural muse—in several of the photos her gaze is just as strong as the camera’s. Mapplethorpe arranged other artful encounters with friends, lovers, and strangers that fairly breathe with life. The camera became, as Wolf puts it, “fuel for erotic energy in the room.” Mapplethorpe also displayed affectionate insight; a portrait of rocker Marianne Faithfull holding a cup of tea suggests the vulnerability beneath her hard-living persona. But in 1975 Mapplethorpe’s lover and benefactor Sam Wagstaff gave him a Hasselblad camera. The Polaroids were pushed into the past and rarely, if ever, exhibited, except for one solo show in 1973.

Though they do feature the formal portraiture that would later bring him renown, Mapplethorpe’s Polaroids possess a touching sense of freedom absent in his more famous photos. You can almost hear Mapplethorpe and his various subjects breathing heavily, or giggling furiously, over their often horny camaraderie. The shared privacy with transgressive partners at play lends these pictures a soft, singular innocence.

“I saw them as tender,” Wolf agrees. “I saw the maker as being enthralled by what he sees. His later works are so controlled and stylized—and I admire that as well. But there’s a real curiosity about seeing with the camera in these shots. You see his heart and his sense of humor.”

Get an eyeful: 15 of Mapplethorpe’s Polaroids

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