Gone in an Instant

Robert Mapplethorpe, Untitled, 1973Photo: courtesy of the Whitney with permission from the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

It wasn’t supposed to be this way, but “Polaroids: Mapplethorpe,” opening this week at the Whitney, has become a memorial to the medium. Several weeks ago, the diminished Polaroid Corporation announced it will, in 2009, quit the instant-film business. Of course, it’s hard to argue with the ease of digital for the lion’s share of see-it-now picture-taking. Nevertheless, a lot of photographers are vehement about what they’re losing. “It’s the worst disaster since Hiroshima,” shouts Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, who shoots large-format Polaroid Type 809. “I just bought $5,000 worth—I’ve got it in my basement. I never shot color till the mid-eighties, when I started to work with Polaroid. It was such a beautiful film—lush color, very forgiving for skin. It was always something artists liked.” Chuck Close, who uses Polaroid’s 20-by-24-inch studio camera, loved the black-and-white tones: “It’s loaded with silver. Actually, there used to be even more, in the old films that you had to coat. It was beautiful. It’s not replaceable, and they’re leaving it like roadkill. These corporate raiders who buy a company and strip it for everything profitable—they just pick the bones.”

Mapplethorpe’s work at the Whitney is from the early seventies, when he was learning how to take pictures, and “its instant nature was incredibly important,” says show curator Sylvia Wolf. “You can see that he was learning how to expose, how to compose. He said he was too impatient to wait for a lab.” It’s also evident that he was working in the moment. Over and over, he photographed Patti Smith, his roommate at the Hotel Chelsea. “There’s a sexiness and titillation to the instant process,” says Wolf. It’s intimate.

“Now what the hell am I supposed to do?” asks John Waters, who’s shot a Polaroid of each person who’s come into his apartment since 1992—friends, interviewers, deliverymen, everyone. “Digital isn’t instant gratification, and those cameras don’t make that sexy sound.” Waters, too, is hoarding film. “What are wardrobe departments supposed to do?” he continues. “How else will they keep costume continuity shots? And has anybody thought about the poor home-porno enthusiasts? Are they supposed to now risk arrest by taking some memory disk to the drugstore to get printed? The world is a terrible place without Polaroid.”

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Gone in an Instant