Sunday, June 7, 2009

Sam Wagstaff

Mapplethorpe (standing) and Wagstaff

I watched a movie last night called "Black, White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe." Every photographer knows who Robert Mapplethorpe is: the creator of immaculate black and white photographs of flowers and naked gay men. But I had never heard of Sam Wagstaff.

Sam Wagstaff was only a casual photographer and probably didn't call himself an artist. But many of the people interviewed for this documentary thought that Mapplethorpe would not have had a career in photography if it had not been for his friend, mentor, and lover, Sam Wagstaff. (Both were also involved with Patti Smith in the seventies.) Wagstaff was 25 years older than Mapplethorpe and Smith. He came from a patrician New York family, went to Yale, served in the Navy during WWII, worked in advertising for a while, and then went to graduate school in art history. He served as a curator of painting and sculpture at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, and then at the Detroit Institute of Art.

But then in 1973, Wagstaff suddenly decided that photographs were more interesting as an art form than painting or sculpture. When his mother died and he inherited quite a bit of money, he began collecting photographs frenetically, especially 19th century photographs. I was amazed to see, in the film, how many really important 19th century photographs he owned; I saw a lot of the photographs that are in textbooks about the history of photography. I kept saying to myself, "He owned THAT?!?"

In 1984 Wagstaff sold his collection of around 30,000 photographs to the Getty Museum in California for $5 million. He died in 1987 at the age of 65 from AIDS.

Wagstaff put together a book of photographs, the highlights of his collection, called A Book of Photographs from the Collection of Sam Wagstaff. But unfortunately, the least expensive copy I could find online was $250! Maybe the library at the University of Houston has it.

Wagstaff's great contribution to our modern understanding of photography stems first from his willingness to see it as an art form, which, in the early seventies, it barely was. As Bruce Hainly said in a review in Artforum of a 1997 show of Wagstaff's collection, he rehabilitated photography from its "disreputable position." Although Wagstaff embraced what he called "pleasure" and beauty in photographs, his collection contained some photographs that are still difficult to look at: medical pictures of deformed people and amputees, horrible skin diseases, and the bloated bodies of soldiers on a battlefield. Hainly wrote that "he ultimately foiled photography's domesticity by embracing its vicious nature." Mapplethorpe's study of these "vicious" photographs influenced his style, as we can see in his photographs of sado-masochistic sex.

It's nice to know that the man who made photography less "disreputable" also kept it from becoming "domesticated," and that a central part of his interest in photographs was the pleasure of looking at them. Since the mid-eighties, in certain theoretical circles, pleasure in looking has itself been considered "disreputable." But photographers photograph things that they long to look at again and again. We all have our "vice," as Wagstaff called his collecting, the vice of a compulsion to collect the things we love to look at in the world by photographing them. This may in fact be somewhat "disreputable," like so many pleasures.

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