November 4: Eclectic

4November 4: What price collectors ?

In 1972, Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe celebrated with Patti Smith at The Pink Teacup. Sam gave Robert a Hasselblad, Robert gave Sam a print; the two men shared the same November 4th birthday, though 27 years apart, Sam’s in 1921, Robert’s 1948. 

Francesco Scavullo (1974) Wagstaff (left) poses with Robert Mapplethorpe. Courtesy of the Francesco Scavullo Foundation

In the next eleven years Samuel J. Wagstaff Jr. amassed a vast, eclectic collection of 26,000 photographs. Three years after he’d completed his collection he died in 1987.

He had sensed that photography was an undervalued art form on which he might have a profound impact as a collector, he bought photographs that stimulated his idiosyncratic imagination, choosing those that surprised him chiefly because he had never seen them before.

Born into a family with dwindling wealth, after serving in WW2 Wagstaff commenced a quite successful career in advertising, which he later came to regard as a trade in lies. Though identified in 1946 in the social pages of the New York World Telegram as ‘one of the ten most attractive bachelors’, he was gay, with male lovers. Laid low in 1956 with hepatitis, he was confronted with the falseness of his personal career and the double life that his sexual orientation was forcing upon him.

Reinventing his life at thirty-six years old, he enrolled in an art history course at the Institute for Fine Arts at New York University where Richard Offner (1889-1965) taught him connoisseurship. Though he was Professor of Florentine Renaissance Painting, Offner used photographs, often close-up details of canvases, to explain how to evaluate a painting in his teaching, based not on its iconography, but on its tonalities. One day after asking his class what they were looking at as he showed them a slide of an obscure altarpiece, he revealed that “You’re looking at a photograph.” Wagstaff recalled, “I thought I was studying Italian painting, but subliminally I was studying how to look at photographs”.

Wagstaff became a collector with the training and skills of a curator, which is too often the exception. Appointed to the Wadsworth Athaneum and assembling several innovative exhibitions of contemporary art, including the first minimalist works to be surveyed in a museum show, and he developed a further rare skill, that of being able to write explanatory texts for the public explaining modern art to them in an accessible, but challenging voice. Too many wealthy collectors receive all of this second-hand, if at all.

Moving to the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1969, he proved himself too avant-garde, too hip,  his behaviour annoyed the trustees as did his selections of cutting-edge contemporary conceptual, minimalist and post-object artists. His step-father’s estate came to the rescue with $800,000, equivalent today to $5 million, and he moved to New York, where Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe met in 1972.

Teresa Engle (1981) Robert Mapplethorpe and Sam Wagstaff, Arles, France.

Before he met Mapplethorpe, Wagstaff had dismissed photography as unworthy of his attention. One of his shows at the DIA the year before, in 1972, was Michael Heizer: Photographic and Actual Work.

He’d seen Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man in 1955 and announced that “the kiss of death in art is sentimentality”. It was only after standing before two versions of Steichen’s The Flatiron, one blue-toned, the other green, that he understood Steichen’s artistic mastery and the capacity of photography to be real art; “From that moment on I decided that I wanted to get involved with photography.”

Edward J. Steichen The Flatiron gum bichromate over platinum print, 1904

He used the inheritance from his mother who died that year, he sold his Jackson Pollock, quadrupling its value, and began purchasing both the highbrow and the low in photographic imagery, from Baldus to von Gloeden, Fredrick Evans and Roger Fenton, Edward Weston to cartes-de-visite and stereoscopes.

1974 auction of Julia Margaret Cameron photographs at Sotheby_s in London, bought by Wagstaff
1974 auction of Julia Margaret Cameron’s Herschel album at Sotheby’s in London, bought by Wagstaff (Photo:Sotheby’s)

His winning bid at Sotheby’s London of £25,000 for the important Julia Margaret Cameron album of 94 prints she had made for her mentor John Herschel was unprecedented in 1974 when an Edward Weston could be had for less than $200. Furthermore, the sale prompted public dismay and a passionate campaign was started to keep the album in the country;  it was the first recognition, by institutions, collectors and the public, of photography as a serious art form in Britain. The sudden interest prompted Sotheby’s to open New York sales of photography.

Around 1975 Wagstaff proposed to Thomas Messer, director of the Guggenheim Museum, that they show his collection, writing;

As you know, photography is at a strange new place. For the last several years there has been a growing awareness of it by many, like myself, who treated it as worse than a secondary consideration, third, or fourth, even after graphics, on the higher scale of art excellence. But photography is not a secondary consideration. It is a thing unto itself and of its own excellence.

The Guggenheim demurred but his efforts were acknowledged that year with a place on MoMA’s Photographs Committee opposite director John Szarkowski (1925–2007) whose tastes he complimented, being spurred by the possibility of finding works that the director had overlooked. That year, from the eccentric André Jammes, French bookman (many of the earlier collectors of photography were book collectors), who had translated Beaumont Newhall’s seminal The History of Photography into French, Wagstaff purchased 400 Nadar portraits for $69,000.

Arnold Newman Sam Wagstaff in his apartment at 1 Fifth Avenue, New York 1976

He housed his collection in a new minimally furnished apartment, all white on every surface, where framed prints lined the walls and parqueted the spotless floors. Visitors at his parties there on one occasion included Brassai and Giselle Freund.

A Book of Photographs from the Collection of Sam Wagstaff 1978

Thematically Wagstaff’s collection was complex, but his patriotism shows in his selection, as does an interest in death, both manifested in high art imagery but also in ephemera and in scientific and utilitarian photographs.

Ill with AIDS, as was Mapplethorpe (who survived him, dying in 1989), Wagstaff sold his collection of photographs to the Getty, to make the largest collection of the medium in the country and turned his interest to silver, before dying not long before his lover James Nelson, in 1987.

Robert Mapplethorpe (1988) Self Portrait

There is no doubt that Wagstaff’s interest in the medium of photography contributed to a shift in its status as art, however as it is with most art dealings, only indirect benefit was bestowed on living artists. At about he same time as the landmark Photographs from the collection of Sam Wagstaff was shown at the Corcoran and spawned a major book (A Book of Photographs from the collection of Sam Wagstaff).

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Spread from A Book of Photographs from the Collection of Sam Wagstaff 1978

Mapplethorpe’s fortunes turned too. Tunisian/French Gerald Incandela with whom Wagstaff had a relationship at that time also felt the touch of success, before his benefactor withdrew his support, tired of their sexless cohabitation.

The value of photographic prints increased no doubt as did their intellectual value in part due to Wagstaff’s capacity to communicate enthusiasm about them to others through his writings and lectures.

One must set Wagstaff beside Helmut and Alison Gernsheim, who succeeded in their quest for the world’s first photograph, made by Niecephore Niepce, to gauge his true worth. But that is another post.


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