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Polaroid image of Patti Smith sitting on a stool with arms wrapped around one knee.

Patti Smith, c. 1974, Polaroid

Mapplethorpe's secret diary

Robert Mapplethorpe's early Polaroids - seen here for the first time - shed an extraordinary light on the artist's life and work. Sylvia Wolf delves into his archive

Robert Mapplethorpe's sexually explicit, homoerotic photographs made him one of the most notorious photographers of the 1980s and a lightning rod for social and political conservatives. But before these works - and before his equally famous nudes, flower studies and celebrity portraits made between the late 1970s and his death from Aids in 1989 - Mapplethorpe was taking hundreds of Polaroids. This remarkable treasure trove of more than 1,500 photographs, the majority of them never published, reveal how instant photography provided Mapplethorpe with a mode of entry into his creative ambition, his sexual desires and the art world at large.

Four years ago, invited by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to visit its archive, I asked to see lesser-known, quirky works rather than the signature works that are contained in the dozens of books on Mapplethorpe that have been published over the years. In notebooks filled with plastic sleeves that held black-and-white Polaroid photographs, I found pictures so intimate in their revelation of Mapplethorpe's curiosity about seeing with the camera that I felt I was peering into the photographer's diary. Unlike the carefully crafted and controlled images he staged later in the studio, Mapplethorpe's Polaroids are marked by spontaneous invention. Some convey an unexpected tenderness and vulnerability; others have a toughness and immediacy that would give way in later years to a more refined formalism. But above all, Mapplethorpe learned how to see photographically with Polaroid materials. The resulting works give us unprecedented access to his creative development at a time when he was shaping his identity as an artist and as a man.

Mapplethorpe first began using Polaroid materials in 1970, when he borrowed an instant camera to take photographs for the homoerotic collages he was making at the time. Soon, though, he discovered the gratification of making Polaroid photographs to be appreciated in their own right. He had been a student of graphic arts at Pratt Institute, and was then sharing a room in the Chelsea Hotel on 23rd Street in Manhattan with the young poet and future rock singer Patti Smith.

Over the next decade, Mapplethorpe made hundreds of photographs of Smith. Some images are infused with the affection that comes with long friendship and intimacy. Others hint at Mapplethorpe's and Smith's ferocious attachment. In one, Patti appears as an aloof bohemian with a cigarette, resembling the painter Lee Krasner or the Italian screen actor Anna Magnani. In others, she is cocky, vulnerable, or defiant. More than any of Mapplethorpe's subjects, Smith was both a muse and a mirror for him. On the one hand, she offered inspiration; on the other, she validated his endeavours with her participation.

Within his first year of taking pictures, Mapplethorpe also began to explore his sexual attraction to men, trying to determine whether he was gay, straight or bisexual, and the Polaroid camera became an accomplice and an aid. As he embraced homosexuality, he made dozens of photographs of handsome young men gazing at the camera with sultry come-hither looks or staring past the photographer in states of suspended consciousness. For his subjects, being photographed by Mapplethorpe was often an erotic experience. For Robert, taking pictures was a means of seduction and a catalyst for sex. The Polaroid process was particularly appealing for its immediacy. Long before digital technology made instant viewing a standard part of picture-making, Polaroid cameras gave rapid results.

This visual responsiveness to the moment is one of the distinguishing characteristics of this body of work. In an early self-portrait, Mapplethorpe captures himself in a spontaneous display of candour, with uncombed hair and piercing eyes looking intently in the direction of the camera but not at the lens itself. It is a deceptive, seemingly naive photograph, as the artist gropes for the shutter. Yet it is emblematic of this body of work for its display of the intensity with which Mapplethorpe sought access to inner worlds through photography. At the same time, he made pictures of unremarkable subjects in the outer world. In these small, intimate images (no larger than 10cm by 13cm), we see his appreciation for ordinary things - a ceramic jug, for example, or a shop-window display of children's shoes. Mapplethorpe also made wryly humorous images that hint at coupling; a hand tugging a sheet across a striped mattress evokes the emotional push/pull of romance.

In the early summer of 1972, Mapplethorpe showed his Polaroids to Sam Wagstaff, who became his lover, mentor and benefactor. Wagstaff had been a curator of contemporary art, and would become one of the most visionary connoisseurs of fine art photography.

Twice Robert's age, Wagstaff had recently received a family inheritance and moved to New York City. In October 1972, he bought Mapplethorpe a loft on Bond Street. (Smith moved to an apartment in Greenwich Village with her new partner, Allen Lanier, a member of the band Blue Oyster Cult.) With ample space to set up a camera, Mapplethorpe was freer than ever before to entertain and photograph the men he met in leather bars in the West Village.

Among the Polaroids he made at the time are pictures of men in bondage: some wearing masks, others sporting garments and gear designed to heighten suspense, prolong arousal, and enhance pleasure and performance. He also made pictures of men and women, gay and straight, whose bodies and beauty he admired. One such suite of pictures features the dancer Joshua Mores striking poses before a full-length mirror with the photographer in the background squatting behind his Graflex camera. Another sequence depicts a saucy, shapely subject named Lucy, whose exuberant sexuality is a far cry from the staged athleticism of Lisa Lyon, the first women's world champion in bodybuilding, whom Mapplethorpe would photograph years later. Unlike the muscle-bound bodies oiled to enhance their chiselled physiques that would make him famous nearly a decade later, the figures in his Polaroids have a soft, fleshy quality that makes them lifelike and approachable.

Historical precedent for Mapplethorpe's figurative work may be found in photographs by Minor White, Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden and F Holland Day, all of whom couched homoeroticism in formal, mythological or religious symbolism. Mapplethorpe was also inspired by antiquity and neoclassical art, as seen in Polaroid photographs of public sculptures that were originally intended to broadcast noble, humanist ideals through the power of the body. Mapplethorpe's pictures, however, locate the erotic suggestion often present in such works. In one, a muscular male physique, leaning on a large sword, is shot from below and behind against a backdrop of silvery, clouded skies. The vignetting at the edges of the frame, which abstracts the figure from its environment, gives it a heroic flavour, while the hitch of the hip suggests a confident swagger.

More contemporary points of reference are works by photographers of the late 1960s who pictured fringe behaviour, depicted forbidden sex or portrayed those on the social margins. Diane Arbus, for instance, photographed circus performers, drag queens and transvestites, and Larry Clark took pictures of teenage drug addicts from his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Like Arbus and Clark, Mapplethorpe participated in and was sympathetic to the world he rendered. At the same time, he occupied a parallel universe: when not photographing a conquest or acquaintance, he increasingly made portraits of the cultural elite, many of whom were introduced to his work in 1973, the year his career as a photographer was publicly launched.

Mapplethorpe opened his first solo show on January 6 1973, at Light Gallery, New York. For the invitation he took a self-portrait in a mirror, holding his Polaroid camera before his bare crotch. Either a red or a white paper dot was applied to the front to conceal the penis - an example of veiling the forbidden, and a tongue-in-cheek dig at postal laws forbidding the circulation of nudity through the mail. The show drew visitors from uptown and downtown, an indication of Mapplethorpe's appeal across cultural and socio-economic boundaries. In subsequent years, he would capitalise on his growing connections as portraiture became a central focus of his career and his means of earning a living. He photographed artists, actors, musicians and designers, from the singer Marianne Faithful to Nicky Weymouth, a socialite and member of Andy Warhol's circle, who is pictured as an ethereal figure, seemingly floating underwater, her hair flowing behind.

In 1975, Wagstaff gave Mapplethorpe a Hasselblad 2¼-inch camera, a model often used by studio photographers to make highly detailed portraits. Mapplethorpe was ready for the heightened precision and image quality a Hasselblad provided, and from then on he stopped using a Polaroid camera in any regular way. The Polaroid images were filed away, rarely to be seen again during his lifetime. What may have kept many of his Polaroids in boxes and notebooks in his studio, and in the Mapplethorpe Foundation's archive after his death, is the zeal with which the photographer embraced more sophisticated equipment and the notoriety he achieved for his later pictures.

Historians, critics and artists often pay more attention to the most recent work at the expense of previous innovation. Yet Mapplethorpe's Polaroids reveal the evolution in his thinking and seeing. With the instant camera, Mapplethorpe defined his sexual identity and artistic persona, developed the basic style and subject matter of his work, and established the personal relationships that would become the foundation of his artistic success

Adapted from Sylvia Wolf's essay in her book Mapplethorpe: Polaroids, published by Prestel, price £30.