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Sam Wagstaff, seated, hands folded in lap.

Sam Wagstaff, c. 1972, Polaroid

Instant Gratification

The name Robert Mapplethorpe conjures up cool, slick, faultless photographs of the human body, rendered in marmoreal black and white. It also connotes the explicit but exquisitely composed X-rated pictures that excited intense political scrutiny in the early 1990s. What the name does not usually suggest is tenderness, imperfection, or spontaneity – which is why the Whitney’s small but packed little show of the photographer’s early Polaroids comes as such a welcome shock.

Many of these instant photos have never been shown, and the rest only rarely; together they reveal in Mapplethorpe a very different sensibility, one that had yet to form its mature, glistening carapace. Here, naked men lounge on rumpled sheets or pose on scarred wood floors, but they have not yet achieved the serenely masculine magnificence he would give them later on. They are friends, lovers and colleagues – people, in other words, rather than ravishing arrangements of long, lean limbs.

There’s something doubly poignant about these impromptu photos of young gay exhibitionists in Lower Manhattan during the early 1970s. That period was the carefree clearing between the Stonewall Riots and the advent of Aids (which killed Mapplethorpe in 1989), and he preserved it with a technology that has just been consigned to history. Polaroid recently abandoned instant film, which is as troubling as if Kleenex stopped making tissues or Xerox ceased copying.

For Mapplethorpe, the Polaroid’s appeal was instant gratification at a time when photographers had to wait hours or days between the click of the shutter and the consummation of the print. He didn’t like the delay, though he would later teach himself to appreciate the excitement of discovering what emerged from the chemical bath. “Taking a picture and sexuality are parallels,” he said. “They’re both unknowns. And that’s what excites me most in life – the unknown.”

Mapplethorpe was a 23-year-old art school graduate in 1970 when he acquired his first Polaroid camera and set out to master the unfamiliar medium of photography. He taught himself how to expose prints and how to witness the unfolding of life at the lens’s revelatory remove. Garry Winogrand once said, “I photograph to see what the world looks like in photographs.” The same urge, tinged with a stain of narcissism, drove Mapplethorpe. From the beginning, he was especially interested in what he looked like in the frame – the curl of his toes or the bend of his penis or the deliberate chaos of his tousled locks.

At first he admitted to the circle of his self-love only his doppelganger and androgynous lover, the rocker Patti Smith. Her body was nearly as boyish as his, her hair as bed-mussed, her expression as artistically glum, and together they engaged in a project of self-reinvention. She tried on different roles before his camera: ultra-feminine ingénue, Anna Magnani wannabe, cool hipster and tramp.

These early portraits of himself and Smith project a sense of looseness and a willingness to be driven by his subject’s whims, by shifts in light, and forces outside his control. He turned his camera towards the world beyond the regulated environment of his apartment/studio, catching moody glimpses of the city at night, surreal shop windows, and sculptures that flaunted forms of timeless grace.

Mapplethorpe’s classical bent was there at the start, but in the earliest Polaroids he inflected it with Hellenistic drama. A Greek bust, for instance, enters the picture at one corner, thrusting diagonally into the frame. The sense of movement doesn’t inhere in the sculpture itself, but is injected through Mapplethorpe’s asymmetrical composition. Here, he opted for theatrical verve, subjugating a preference for symmetry that would later become an obsession.

The pictures he took in 1972-3 of Sam Wagstaff, a curator, collector, benefactor and lover, betray a unique intimacy. Mapplethorpe caught Wagstaff in unguarded moments: shaving in the bathtub, asleep, relaxing in post-coital contentment. These snapshots are amateurish in appearance, but in spotlighting the sloppy, unposed subject, they reveal those same qualities in their maker. We see the photographer, too, basking in impetuosity.

From 1973 on, though, Mapplethorpe assumed the role of auteur, taking charge of a style that becomes increasingly refined, sophisticated and static. He directed his stable of beautiful young men to hold their limbs just so, to confront the camera, to mimic the forms of ancient and Renaissance art. Michelangelo’s “Dying Slave”, an icon of sensual abandon and masochistic pleasure, became a point of departure for pictures of “Jamie”, “Michael” and “Nicholas Black”, who raise their arms around their heads in gestures of surrender to pleasure or pain. Here and elsewhere, Mapplethorpe explored the meanings of “passion”, ranging from ardour to lust, suffering and martyrdom.

Raised as a Roman Catholic, schooled in Hellenic worship of the male body and attuned to the strains of homoeroticism and orgasmic spirituality in the art historical canon, Mapplethorpe created images that were at once alarming and deeply familiar. He equated the taut and chiselled physiques of his bedmates with the grace of antique gods, and he bound and posed his subjects in the attitudes of suffering martyrs. Genitals, chains, ropes, cuffs and weights appeared in ever more disconcerting combinations, but the more he dwelled on pain, the more he forced transcendence through elegant compositions.

In this show, you can see Mapplethorpe using the Polaroid to bring his eye, his training and his sexuality into alignment, to reconcile New York bohemia and ancient Athens. He would no doubt have found common ground with 18th-century archeologist and art historian J.J. Winckelmann, a gay worshipper of classical antiquity and a Catholic convert, who wrote “I have noticed that those who are observant of beauty only in women, and are moved little or not at all by the beauty of men, seldom have an impartial, vital, inborn instinct for beauty in art.”

‘Polaroids: Mapplethorpe’, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, until September 7.