- Robert Mapplethorpe
- SAM WAGSTAFF ASLEEP
- polaroid t55
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This unique Polaroid photograph of Sam Wagstaff, Robert Mapplethorpe's lover and patron, dates to the early years of their relationship and of Mapplethorpe's engagement with photography.
Mapplethorpe's first serious work with a camera was done with a Polaroid, and his first exhibition of photographs, in 1973, consisted solely of Polaroid photographs. As a student at Pratt in the 1960s, he had encountered traditional photography but did not pursue it. Until photography became his sole artistic output, Mapplethorpe's artwork consisted of collages and assemblages that frequently employed photographic or photomechanical elements. In 1971, the artist and filmmaker Sandy Daley loaned him her Polaroid camera, and Mapplethorpe began experimenting.
In Patti Smith's recent memoir of her friendship with Mapplethorpe in New York City in the 1960s and '70s, she describes the young photographer's handling and approach to this camera:
'The Polaroid camera in Robert's hands. The physical act, a jerk of the wrist. The snapping sound when pulling the shot and the anticipation, sixty seconds to see what he got. The immediacy of the process suited his temperament. At first he toyed with the camera. He wasn't totally convinced that it was for him. And film was expensive, ten pictures for about three dollars, a substantial amount in 1971' (Just Kids, p. 154).
While the cost of Polaroid film initially limited Mapplethorpe's use of the camera, he received a grant of film from the company in 1972 through the auspices of John McKendry, then curator of photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This allowed Mapplethorpe to work more freely with the Polaroid camera and hone his skills as a photographer and provocateur. The invitation for his first photographic exhibition, at Light Gallery in 1973, was a self-portrait of the photographer's nude midsection, with a Polaroid 360 camera held just above his genitalia, which were obscured by the application of a white adhesive label.
The tender, domestic portrait of Wagstaff offered here differs from much of the Polaroid work Mapplethorpe was doing at the time, and this is no doubt the result of their close relationship, begun in 1972. The intellectually cultivated Wagstaff was gifted with an eye for photography, and was one of the first collectors to realize the intrinsic aesthetic importance of the medium, as well as its relationship to other arts. This sensitivity allowed him to create one of the greatest photography collections of the 20th century, now housed at the Getty Museum. Wagstaff pioneered an eclectic style of collecting that in many ways set a template that would be followed by other collectors of photography.
Wagstaff's patronage of Mapplethorpe allowed the young photographer the freedom and means to fully pursue his photographic work at a time when he encountered resistance from galleries. The two met when Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith lived together on Manhattan's 23rd Street. Smith notes that it was Wagstaff's immediate interest in Mapplethrope's work that cemented their bond:
'Love his work. That was the only way to Robert's heart. But the only one who truly grasped this, who had the capacity to love his work completely, was the man who was to become his lover, his patron, and his lifelong friend . . . Sam was attractive to Robert for more than his looks. He had a positive and curious nature and, unlike others Robert had met in the art world, did not seem tormented about the complexity of being a homosexual' (ibid., p. 204).
Mapplethorpe and Wagstaff shared a birthday, albeit 25-years apart, and on their first shared birthday as a couple, Mapplethorpe gave Wagstaff a photograph, and Wagstaff gave the young photographer a Hasselblad camera equipped with a Polaroid back.