Friday 6 August 2010

The Photography Curator and Collector known as Sam Wagstaff Jr (1921-1987)

Part one:

I watched Black White + Gray, James Crump’s documentary on Sam Wagstaff and felt dissatisfied with its perspective on one of the most influential curators of photography. The feature length portrait did not create a convincing portrait for me of Sam as an outstanding and incisive collector of photographs. It concentrated much more on the man’s personal life and his relationship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe.

Sam started forming his collection during 1973, purchasing widely and boldly across all periods but in particular pre-World War I material. A decade later he sold almost all of the collection to the Getty Museum and set that institution onto a strategic plan that quickly established one of the world’s key photography collections. The Getty’s photography curator Gordon Baldwin knew Sam personally and commented, “It was pretty clear that he came from a starchy background.”

In 1978, Gray Press issued A Book of Photographs from the collection of Sam Wagstaff in conjunction with an exhibition of the works at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery, that later travelled throughout America. This show alerted many museum curators that they just were not giving enough attention to the achievement of photography.

It is impossible to not be moved by this outstanding collection. It is totally heterogeneous and idiosyncratic. The images that Sam collected were not constrained by silly ideas about hierarchies of value. He mixed up categories in a way that no museum was then doing: travel and industrial, ethnographic and amateur, scientific and pictorialist photography. Sam refused to be constrained by notions that certain photographs were more important than others.

You can access Sam Wagstaff's archive at the Archives of American Art:

In my next blog I will show three favourites from his collection.

1 comment:

Ron Brownson said...

After I posted this BLOG on the importance of Sam Wagstaff as a photography collector I thought of other issues:

I have never reviewed a documentary before here and I wondered if I was expecting that it should be a biography of Sam Wagstaff's life as a curator and a collector rather than being concerned with the reputation that his personal life with Robert Mapplethorpe brought to his posthumous reputation?

There has always been a publicly unstated problem after Sam's death - did his infection with HIV and his subsequent Acquired Immune Defficiency Syndrome mean that he had to suddenly retire from his vocation as a collector of photography?

In thinking about this great American public collector, and private curator, I am again reminded how contemporary photography has been privately collected in New Zealand.

In Wellington, I much respect the early personal collecting activity of our brilliant art dealer Peter McLeavey. Peter is someone who can evaluate all periods of photography without prejudice. He goes for the expressive power of the photographic image, always.

Mary and Jim Barr, as well as their friends Milly and Lesley Paris, were both early contemporary collectors of the medium and their insight into photography has always been influential.

As collectors of photography with a longtime committment to the medium, the Barrs and the Paris's collecting activities has revealed to New Zealand's public galleries that photography is not a second-hand medium of visual art. Their private collecting strategy has truly influenced how public collections respond to the medium.

The Wanganui based artist Peter Ireland has been a committed and acute photography scholar; as well as a friend to many of our key photographers. He is also one of our finest commentators on the history of New Zealand photography. I really respect his scholarship. It was Peter who early on showed me the importance that photographer Peter Hannken and painter Jeffrey Harris have for our nation's art history