The Fussy Eye: Instant Gratification

Exploring early Mapplethorpe at the Henry.

Shooting with a Polaroid, as Robert Mapplethorpe gradually learned to do in the early '70s, meant that the first draft was the final draft, the 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 rooftops seem borrowed from the f/64 school: Weston, Kertész, and company. Most shots are casual portraits of friends—some later famous, like Patti Smith, some just afternoon quickies. 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 images are better suited to catalog-flipping than walls. The lighting and composition are often amateurish; but then, so was Mapplethorpe (1946–89) at the time. He would refine his skills during the second half of the '70s 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. 

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