Object of the Month

Title: Untitled (self-portrait)
Artist: Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–1989)
Nationality: American
Date: ca. 1970/73
Medium: Monochromatic dye diffusion transfer print (Polaroid), made with Model 360 Polaroid camera
Credit: Gift of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, 2007.12. © The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.

In 1970, Robert Mapplethorpe was an unknown artist living at New York’s Chelsea Hotel with his best friend, poet-musician Patti Smith. He borrowed a Polaroid camera from a neighbor, intending to use it for the homoerotic collages he was making at the time, but he became fascinated by instant photographs for their own sake. (“If I were to make something that took two weeks to do, I’d lose my enthusiasm,” Mapplethorpe once told curator Janet Kardon. “It would become an act of labor and the love would be gone.”)

From 1970–75, Mapplethorpe took more than 1,500 Polaroids.This photograph was one of numerous self-portraits.Other favorite subjects included Smith, celebrities such as David Hockney and Marianne Faithfull, still lifes, and nudes. In 1972, the Polaroid Corporation began giving Mapplethorpe free film and equipment through its Artist Support Program.

Mapplethorpe stopped making Polaroids after 1975, when his lover, curator-collector Sam Wagstaff, gave him a Hasselblad 500 camera. But his “Polaroid years” developed the emphasis on the human body and sexual subcultures that marked his more famous—and controversial— later work.