Saturday 7 August 2010

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

Part Two

At home, all through my teenage years, I had only one photograph on my bedroom wall. It was a duo-tone reproduction of a rare portrait from about 1902 by Baron Wilhelm van Gloeden (1856-1931). I had removed the portrait from Creative Camera magazine which our local bookshop gave me. I never knew much about Van Gloeden then.

Later, I learnt that he was a German expatriate who lived for years in Taormina, Sicily. His photographs were reproduced in the very first issue of that influential British art magazine The Studio. This portrait always seemed to me to be a very strange image – a Sicilian teenager holding a pair of datura flowers against his face like armour or a wreath.

I soon picked up that this portrait was deliberately referencing the ancient Mediterranean but I did not realise that it is also an early example of fabricated photography from the early 1900s. Only recently did I realise that I was looking at it a full decade before Sam Wagstaff had acquired a vintage print of it while on a journey away from New York with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe. It is likely that this Van Gloeden was one of the first photographs to enter Sam’s collection; his images soon influenced Robert’s own portraits.
The Jewish American photographer Doris Ulmann (1882-1934) is a personal favourite with me. In Christchurch some years ago, I discovered her very rare illustrated book Roll, Jordan Roll from 1933 which profiles the vanishing Gullah speaking Black population of the Sea Islands of South Carolina. These are some of the most intimate portraits of Black American life ever made.
For images from this remarkable book consult:

Sam Wagstaff collected a number of Ulmann’s Appalachian portraits (1928-1934) and these belong with the finest images made in the Pictorialist photographic tradition. They are set up but they never feel manipulative, she had a natural ability to put people at ease. Doris was clear about her intentions: “The faces of men and women in the street are probably as interesting as literary faces, but my particular human angle leads me to men and women who write. I am not interested exclusively in literary faces, because I have been more deeply moved by some of my mountaineers than by any literary person. A face that has the marks of having lived intensely, that expresses some phase of life, some dominant quality or intellectual power, constitutes for me an interesting face. For this reason the face of an older person, perhaps not beautiful in the strictest sense, is usually more appealing than the face of a younger person who has scarcely been touched by life.” (See: Doris Ulmann: Photographer-in-waiting," Bookman, 72, 129-144).

A friend came across a rare Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) portrait in Auckland in a second hand store. These are some of the most emotionally charged photo-portraits ever created. They are usually close-up views, the camera is nearly in her subject's face. Julia had a wide circle of friends and regularly asked them to sit for her. Thomas Carlyle’s portrait may be softly focused but this does not reduce its intensity one iota. Likewise, her images of Sir John Herschel and Lord Alfred Tennyson are almost without equal as portraits of British intellectual brilliance during the nineteenth century. These men come across time as if they are living the life of a thinking genius. (Strange to say it but don't all genius's think? You know what I'm getting at because its not a word we use much for the living).

Julia Cameron had no doubt that she was an important artist even though she only started her work while nearing her 50th year: “My aspirations are to ennoble Photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the real and Ideal and sacrificing nothing of the Truth by all possible devotion to Poetry and beauty.” She was one of the most skilled image makers, so much so that even sentiment means something real to her. Her sentiment is never schmaltzy, its endearing.
These three photographs once belonged to Sam Wagstaff. They reveal how much insight he had as a collector. He was drawn to what had been ignored in the history of photograph. He was one great collector!
Doris Ulmann
Berry Pickers circa 1930
Platinum print
Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden
Boy holding lilies, Taormina, Sicily circa 1902
Albumen print
Julia Margaret Cameron
Thomas Carlyle 1867
Albumen print

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