New York

“Photographs from the Sam Wagstaff Collection at the J. Paul Getty Museum”

The great photo-market boom of the ’70s remains to be chronicled, although, in the end, probably no single explanation will be adequate for that giddy time. Sam Wagstaff’s photography collection, along with Arnold Crane’s and André Jammes’, was one of the most renowned products of that era. Now major portions of all three have been bought by the Getty Museum; this exhibition offered a chance to see works from the Wagstaff collection before it migrated west.

In this context, the show was most interesting not for the individual photographs, but as a cross section of the acquisitions of an influential and knowledgeable collector (and one who is still collecting—the show included “Additions from the New Collection of Sam Wagstaff”). An earlier show, at the Grey Art Gallery, in 1978, demonstrated that Wagstaff’s collection contained a wealth of noteworthy images; this exhibition showed the collection to be a reflection of an individual sensibility, an expression of connoisseurship, and even a polemical statement about the nature and function of the medium.

Some of the pictures—surprising works by well-known photographers—are definitely connoisseur’s delights; one such is the photograph of an ostrich skeleton, ca. 1852, by Roger Fentdn, famous for his Crimean War photographs and English landscapes. Others show Wagstaff’s willingness to step beyond notions of art photography and to deal with the medium on its broadest terms. Thus, along with the expected art-photography "masterpieces’: the show included a panel of four pictures illustrating the 1902 book Why My Photographs Are Bad, by Charles M. Taylor, Jr.; six early photo postcards, 1910–25, by John Frank Keith, of families and other groups in Philadelphia; and a NASA picture of astronauts planting the flag on the moon. Such works aren’t particularly valuable on the photo market, but, for one reason or another, each is remarkable. In fact, it is on this sense of the remarkable, rather than on a list of famous names or themes, that Wagstaff’s collection appears to have been based.

At the same time, the work reflects a consistent esthetic, based on intricate tones and details and spare, Modernist compositions. Examples included photographs that are soft-focus and impressionistic in their use of color (for instance, David Robinson’s Via Veneto café scene of 1975, shot through a rippled-glass window); portraits marked by a stylized theatricality (notably Festival Lights, 1908, Pierre Dubreuil’s oil-print depiction of a Pierrot with a parasol); and landscapes whose delicate tones and simple structures seem almost Oriental (as in John Beasley Greene’s Island in the Nile, near Thebes, a salt print from ca. 1854). Wagstaff obviously prized these works also as exceptional objects, as is evidenced by the diversity of printing processes represented, including platinum prints, collotypes, and photo etchings, among others.

Despite the historical range of the works in the exhibition it would be a serious mistake to approach this as a history. The image of photography offered by the show is a very partial one which focuses on the beauty of the pictures that have been made with the medium while largely ignoring the social uses it has been put to. Instead, it provides an impressive example of collecting as a way of imposing meaning—of assembling widely disparate images and constructing a new context from them in which certain qualities that otherwise might go unremarked are emphasized.

Charles Hagen