in Features , Frieze | 01 MAR 11
Featured in
Issue 137

The Other Eye of Sam Wagstaff

The little-known photographs of a pioneering photography collector; an artist’s project

in Features , Frieze | 01 MAR 11

Twenty-four years after his death, Sam Wagstaff’s reputation remains that of an iconoclast. Long-time companion of Robert Mapplethorpe, Wagstaff curated Tony Smith’s first solo show (at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, in 1967), and he was also the curator behind Michael Heizer’s Dragged Mass Displacement (1971), in which bulldozers hauled a 35-tonne monolith across the Detroit Institute of Arts’ pristine north lawn. The ensuing uproar from the enraged board of trustees led to the removal of Heizer’s work later that same year, and Wagstaff subsequently moved to New York, where he began collecting photography. This was in the early 1970s – well before it became fashionable or profitable to do so. In 1984, Wagstaff sold his collection of photographs to the Getty Foundation for a reported US$5 million, and it is an acquisition which is generally thought to have contributed to, and perhaps augured, the acceptance of photography into fine arts.

What is not so well known about Wagstaff is that the entire time he was collecting, supporting and promoting other peoples’ photography, he was also steadily working on photographs of his own. More than 7,000 photographs (filling 46 boxes) taken by Wagstaff were donated to the Getty Research Institute by the Mapplethorpe Foundation several years ago, and have only recently been catalogued. Modest 35mm snapshots with machine-processed white borders, the 3x5 inch prints in the Getty Research Institute were made between 1971 and ’79 and appear to have been processed by a local photo lab. They depict a myriad of subjects: family gatherings, friends, passers-by, trips abroad, flowers, statues, architectural details, landscapes, still lifes, self-portraits, street scenes and abstract formal studies.1

Sam Wagstaff (left) with Robert Mapplethorpe, 1974. Photograph: Francesco Scavullo
Sam Wagstaff (left) with Robert Mapplethorpe, 1974. Photograph: Francesco Scavullo

Of this great oeuvre, the photographs that interest me most (and of which there are many) are the portraits of men. They are sometimes unabashedly erotic. Taken in intimate settings, they depict a succession of beautiful men in various states of dress, undress, lazing-around, posing and arousal. Wagstaff seems to have circled his willing subjects, photographing them in series over the course of a single sitting. He often portrayed the body as an abstraction and focused on details: a torso, a leg or an arm.

These are not casual photographs. Although the resemblance to some of Mapplethorpe’s work is striking, this is not what interests me. What I see in Wagstaff’s images is the frank depiction of the pleasure of discovering the medium of photography itself. Many images register subtle observations of colour, composition, light and shadow; in them, one can see traces of a person seeing the world through a lens and, moreover, truly enjoying the process. In addition to the sheer bulk of images, the attention to detail shows evidence of a seriousness that belies the photographs’ pedestrian snapshot format. Small-scale, modestly executed, un-Photoshopped and often carefully composed in camera, they are photographs from an ancient pre-digital era, when people took time to look and a photograph was a mysterious and somewhat abject form of artistic expression.

It’s unclear what Wagstaff thought of his own photographs in the end – as a passion, learning experiment or failed attempt. Critic Hilton Als has described Wagstaff as a collector with a yearning to possess not just photographs, but also the wild spirits of the artists who made them.2 One thing is certain: Wagstaff used photography as a personal pursuit, the products of which, as far as I can understand, were not intended to end up on someone else’s wall. Although it seems he showed his photographs to friends, he did not seem to make enlargements, or exhibit them. The photographs appear to be the crystallized outcome of a quiet, serious, steady process of looking.

1 For in-depth analysis of Wagstaff's photographs, see Philip Gefter's essay 'Sam Wagstaff: The Photographist', published in the Getty Research Journal, No. 2 (2010), pp.193-202

2 Hilton Als, ‘Wagstaff’s Eye’, The New Yorker, 13 January 1997, p. 42