… the Polaroids reveal an evolution in his thinking and seeing.
This is from Polaroids: Mapplethorpe by Sylvia Wolf (2008):
… Philippe Garner then photography specialist at Sotheby’s in London, met Mapplethorpe and saw an album of his Polaroids in 1974. He remembers Mapplethorpe as an intensely contained individual, a man of few words who nonetheless commanded attention with his exotic personal style. The work was shown without preamble or explanation.
[line break added] It comprised tough sex pictures, which, although this was becoming a period of extended license in publishing, were unlike any photographs Garner had seen. The mainstream French magazine Photo was beginning to feature increasingly challenging sexual imagery, but Mapplethorpe’s works seemed to Garner more raw, more direct, and more personal.
[line break added] “I’m not sure I would have called them works of art at that time, and it is perhaps to their credit that they were not self-consciously aestheticized. Mapplethorpe clearly took them very seriously. They were tough and immensely powerful, had a total integrity, and were evidently an essential part of his personality.”
… Polaroid materials provided the vehicle for his inquiry into the impulses and energies that drove his desire to be an artist. while many contributed to this quest — including lovers, mentors, and friends — his true companion was the Polaroid camera, an alter ego of sorts. In addition to giving him immediate feedback that helped him to refine his skills, instant photography provided a mode of entry into his creative ambition, his sexual desires, and the art world at large.
What, though, do we make of the fact that Mapplethorpe’s Polaroids received only limited exposure during his lifetime? Are we to consider them incidental or immature?
… Mapplethorpe’s own remarks about the instant gratification of the Polaroid suggest that it is unlikely he would have gotten from point A (his early collages and assemblages) to point C (the photographs that are the markers of his career) without the intermediate, limit-testing phase of picture-making with Polaroid materials.
[line break added] What may have kept many of Mapplethorpe’s Polaroids in boxes and notebooks in his studio, and the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation archive after his death, is the zeal with which he embraced more sophisticated equipment and the notoriety he achieved for these later photographs. Historians, critics, and artists themselves often attend to the most recent work at the expense of previous innovation. Reflecting on earlier production may occur only after an artist’s death.
[line break added] Mapplethorpe said that his vision was already fully formed when he started taking photographs, and there is, indeed, a consistency of subject matter throughout his career, from self-portraits and flowers to sex pictures and nudes. Yet the Polaroids reveal an evolution in his thinking and seeing. What comes through in the early work is a spontaneity, charm, and toughness — an authentic artlessness that makes his Polaroids disarming and unique.