Robert Mapplethorpe’s Instant Precious Relics


“We Poets in our youth begin in gladness,” William Wordsworth wrote ruefully in 1807, “But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.” The poet’s words came back to me while viewing this collection of some 100 mostly unknown Polaroids taken by Robert Mapplethorpe between 1970 and 1975. They are transitional works in more ways than one: made while the fledgling photographer (then in his twenties) was testing his eye, finding his subject matter, and not yet fully committed to either his sexual identity or his medium.

They represent a kind of “coming out,” artistically speaking. The mature themes of this intensely neoclassical photographer’s art are all there: still lives and self-portraiture, pictures of the demimonde and the mondaine—downtown personages, uptown celebrities, artists, socialites, and creatures of the night, who crawled before his camera from who knows where. And, of course, the great theater of eroticism, from the baroque accoutrements of gay sadomasochism—leather masks, nipple rings, penile harnesses, etc.—to tender embraces between men, to the naked mattress ticking that waits, in one photograph, like an empty page for the story of sex to be written upon it.

Still, taken as a whole, Mapplethorpe’s Polaroids are very different from the works that made him, if not the most famous, then posthumously (since his death in 1989) the most notorious photographer of his generation—works that most often combined “hot” subject matter with coolly elegant and precise presentation. Who can forget his masterpiece, Man in Polyester Suit (1980), for example, with its image of a semi-tumescent member sprouting, like desire itself, from sartorial banality? (Carnality seems to have been, for him, a perpetual affront to quotidian reality.) This was a photographer who could mine the latent sexual content of an orchid or even an eggplant, who photographed AWOL sailors as if they were bits of classical statuary, whose portraits of small children are imbued with the same naturalness, mystery, and innate grace as the trussed-up sexual encounters that seem to have sprung from some dark night of the imagination.

The Polaroids, of which he took more than 1,500, are on the whole more casual and intimate—certainly not diaristic (since there’s nothing confessional about Mapplethorpe’s art), but closer to life, in that one senses the push and pull, the continuous dialogue, between the image and its subject. (That dialogue was fostered by the speed of a medium that provided an “instant replay” of reality.) Lacking the later work’s sometimes airless perfection, they make up for it in rawness and immediacy.

In those early, druggy years, Mapplethorpe—a former Catholic schoolboy from Floral Park, Queens, who had joined the ROTC while studying advertising design, and later graphic arts, at the Pratt Institute—was making the bohemian scene at Max’s Kansas City. He was shacking up (at first as lovers) with his muse and soulmate, Patti Smith, at the Chelsea Hotel and in a loft on 23rd Street, and delving into the underworld of gay s&m. Soon he’d fall in love with the patrician curator and pioneering collector Sam Wagstaff, who became his patron and romantic partner, and with whom he explored the still emerging field of fine-art photography.

He borrowed a friend’s Polaroid camera to take pictures for the collages he was then making and to document his growing sexual education. A tripartite self-portrait from 1971, included at the Whitney, shows the then 25-year-old artist naked, his body divided vertically between three Polaroids, which he’s coyly placed behind the mesh veil of a paper potato sack that’s been dyed a deep, almost ecclesiastical violet. Is it an altar for the worship of youth, or is he for sale like just so many tubers?

In fact, the Polaroid’s status as a unique print (much like the daguerreotype a century earlier) infuses it with the aura of a precious relic—this despite its cheesy pop-cultural connotations. (AIDS, which ravaged the photographer’s world, killing both Wagstaff and, two years later, Mapplethorpe himself, magnifies for some of the images the sense that we’re viewing the remnants of a vanished society.) The tension between the chilly refinement of Mapplethorpe’s still-untutored eye and his medium’s latent nostalgia can render even the tamest subject matter unexpectedly moving. A scraggly bunch of daylilies lying across a pillow seems a requiem; a shop window filled with a display of children’s shoes evokes a lost paradise of tiny feet.

He photographed his friends and lovers: Randy’s gaunt, blond head, served up on a platter like John the Baptist’s; Nicholas’s enticing armpit; the exquisite, contrapposto martyrdom of a masked and anonymous St. Sebastian, whose wrists are fastened together high above his head. The act of photographing was both a means of channeling and an incitement to desire, a kind of foreplay, with the Polaroid’s instantaneity egging the various parties on, upping the erotic ante. “When Robert took pictures,” recalls the model David Croland (quoted in Patricia Morrisroe’s deeply researched Mapplethorpe biography), “it was like he owned the subject. He dominated them completely.” (Croland shows up at the Whitney bound, gagged, and lying face-up on some bathroom’s cold tile floor.)

Other friends, more lovingly depicted, nearly elude Mapplethorpe’s grasp, like the craggily handsome Wagstaff, who even in cheesecake poses retains an essential mystery and dignity. Or the formidable Ms. Smith, an androgynous nymph who appears in countless guises, from wide-eyed ingénue to Bob Dylan look-alike to disheveled poet, up all night and hiding in her turtleneck. (His later Polaroid portraits of celebrities are rarely as personal and revealing.) And he photographed himself, reclining on wrinkled sheets and cradling a telephone receiver (à la Anna Magnani in Jean Cocteau’s La Voix Humaine) as if it were an erotic instrument.

Do lovers today cradle their PDAs as tenderly? Something dies in us when old technologies are laid to rest, something about the specific relation to reality they allow us. When, last February, the Polaroid corporation announced that it would stop manufacturing instant film, countless individuals—from artists like Chuck Close, Lyle Ashton Harris, and Lucas Samaras to fashion stylists and buyers—began mourning. (Some of the mourners’ stories are collected at Mapplethorpe wasn’t one to look back, but, one senses, he might have joined them.