Robert Mapplethorpe

Shooting with a Polaroid, as Robert Mapplethorpe gradually learned photography in the early ’70s, meant that his first draft was the final draft, his sketch the finished product. In these 90 small, black-and-white squares, you can see him searching for his own style. Mainly, however, he’s copying others: shooting statuary or posing half-naked friends like statues; the still lifes and NYC roof tops seem borrowed from the f/64 school—Kertész, Weston, and company. Most shots are casual portraits of friends—some later famous, like Patti Smith, and some just afternoon quickies. The images are better suited to catalog flipping than the walls. Mapplethorpe’s promiscuous eye seems interested in everything: flowers, shoes, cigarette packs, telephones, a coiled vacuum cleaner hose, even a pair of bats owned by fellow artist Helen Marden hanging upside-down in their cage. The lighting and composition are often amateurish; but then, so was Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) at the time. He would refine his skills during the second half of the decade with a conventional view camera; then came the ’80s notoriety of his polished erotica. What these early Polaroids have is an intimate, in-the-moment proximity to their subjects. There’s no distance from the photographer when using such a crude lens. For that reason, one of my favorite images here is a self-portrait of Mapplethorpe’s own crossed feet, cuddled together like naked lovers. BRIAN MILLER

Saturdays, Sundays, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; Thursdays, Fridays, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Starts: Oct. 24. Continues through Jan. 31, 2009

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