Los Angeles

“The Eye of Sam Wagstaff”

In 1975, Andy Warhol dedicated the entire November issue of Interview to photography, frustrating the easy separation of fandom, glamour, fashion, and sex from the art of photography just when the medium’s new found status seemed secure. This special issue included the first public display of Sam Wagstaff’s celebrated photography collection, or what he called his “vice.” Printed alongside striking reproductions were some of his most discerning remarks on photography, which made clear its weirdly disreputable position up until the ’70s: photography “was a source of pleasure and joy which had been hidden from me, not only by myself, but by my mentors in the museum world, the dealing world and the world of scholarship.” Though Wagstaff had a hand in rewriting photography’s history, in renegotiating its value as a collectible, and lending all aspects of the enterprise cachet, he ultimately foiled its domestication by embracing its vicious nature. While the connection between his “vice”—a “pleasure and joy” hidden from him—and a number of others (gay male sexuality, male beauty as a career, which came into their own in the ’70s) remains to be explored, that frequently derided decade saw the advent of photography as a salient object of thought. Susan Sontag discerned its aesthetic, moral, and philosophical complexities in On Photography (1977); consider that book a critical gloss on the autobiography Wagstaff never wrote, but his collection obsessively illustrated.

Although Wagstaff’s experience as a curator, at both the Wadsworth Anthenaeum and Detroit’s Institute of Fine Arts, and his collecting and early love of Minimalist and Pop art contributed to the training of his famous eye, pleasure remained the most important principle behind Wagstaff’s turn to photography. It is the best explanation for how and why Wagstaff put together not only one of the most wide-ranging but also one of the most original photography collections in the world, which encompassed, as Hilton Als noted in his recent New Yorker profile of the collector: “early-nineteenth-century French photography, early-twentieth-century British, some late-twentieth-century American, Xeroxes of `found’ images, images to be viewed through a stereoscope, and postcards and photo-graphs of a personal obsession—cats.” However attracted he may have been to anonymous or seemingly outré images, he helped champion the artistic genius of early documentarians of the American landscape, such as Timothy H. O’Sullivan, and prompted critical reevaluations of forgotten masters, such as Nadar, Carleton Watkins, and Gustave Le Gray. It is probably as instructive to state what he didn’t care for as what he did. To Beaumont Newhall’s standard history of photography, he preferred Raymond Lécuyer’s phantasmagoric Histoire de la Photographie. He hated the plebeian and sentimental, loathed work like Imogen Cunningham’s, and “was so turned off by [Steichen’s exhibition] The Family of Man [he] figured [he] never had to look at photography again.”

The recent show “The Eye of Sam Wagstaff” presented a synoptic view of Wagstaff’s original touring exhibition of his collection, which he curated in 1977. It included both idiosyncratic pieces by acknowledged masters (Edward Weston, August Sander, Edward Steichen) and stunning works by then relatively obscure, easily dismissed, or unknown photographers (Louis-Antoine Froissart, Jacques-Henri Lartigue, the Gray Brothers). Wagstaff’s curatorial genius and mania was juxtaposition. He paired discontinuous photographs to create a strange beauty, adding to the odd resonance of the photographs themselves, as in his wild and funny placement of Count de Montizon’s recumbent The Hippopotamus at the Zoological Gardens, Regents Park, 1855, next to Lewis Carroll’s sly odalisque, Portrait of a Young Boy, ca. 1857. He also found exceptional works by famous photographers with which to contrast received notions of their accomplishments, works that, as he said of Sander’s, “def[ied] the absolute clarity that made [them] famous.” Placing one photo next to another had nothing to do with obfuscation but with achieving more clarity, a clarity that could return viewers to the strangeness of the world and their presence in it. As Wagstaff said of his photographs in Interview, “I suspect that photography, which is certainly one of the most common or garden pastimes of all of us, is one of the most difficult things to see.”

Sontag observed: “photography is a promiscuous form of seeing.” Indiscriminately visual, casual in what it picks up, it is always on the make for what it doesn’t have. Quotations from Wagstaff in the exhibition’s wall text boldly announced the sexiness of looking, specifically of looking at photographs: “Death fascinates me less than sex in photographs,” or, even more pointedly, “[some] images allow you to linger, allow you to return again and again to a special mind-place that is sexy in the best sense of the word—emotional, intellectual, and sensual.” In photography, Wagstaff discerned cruising’s residue, “zeroing in on bodies and parts of bodies as sculpture, even in death, even phrenologically,” as he remarked in a 1983 issue of Artforum. He opened the published version of his collection, A Book of Photographs (1978), with Thomas Eakins’ 1883 photograph Male Nudes, Eakins’ Students at a Swimming Hole. Through the passion and extent of his collection, Wagstaff acknowledged collecting as an erotic drive akin to the size queen’s. (“A collection is always more than is necessary,” as Sontag has written elsewhere.) His collecting also revealed the inextricable, if elusive, link between gay desire and the interminable pleasures of the gaze. I’m not sure which of the two came first.

Robert Mapplethorpe made some of this clear in a 1982 interview; Wagstaff’s photography collecting began while shopping for gay erotica:

I was looking for some erotic drawings by Tom of Finland and I went with Sam Wagstaff to Staten Island to visit a pornography dealer. We went out there and found out there were no original drawings, all he had were photocopies. Aside from that, he had mostly chicken porn. But he started bringing out books of photographs and while we were there I said, “Isn’t there some count or baron or something who took photographs of children in Italy?” It was my recollection—I had read it somewhere. I said, “Do you happen to have any pictures by him?” and he pulled out a book of original von Gloeden photographs. This was really the first acquisition Sam or myself made in photography . . . that started the whole thing going.

Such an account contradicts the perhaps more palatable narrative of the collection’s beginnings recorded in the exhibition brochure, according to which “the first photographs that Wagstaff bought” were Frederick Evans’ photographs of Kelmscott Manor. The radicalism of Wagstaff’s aesthetic, in keeping with his love of juxtaposition, is the knowledge that “art” can just as easily be present in a picture of an empty attic in a British manor house as in one of a well-hung young stud. All of which has little to do with a reification of homosexuality, and much more with the recognition of photography’s ability to capture everything in the world.

As elegant as the recent exhibit was, it was so faithful to the original that it emanated a memorial mustiness despite the liveliness of most of the photographs that made it up. How much more fitting a tribute to Wagstaff and his daring had it shown how the Getty photography collection has continued to be inspired by Wagstaff’s eye, since his vice “forms a cornerstone of the [Getty’s] holdings.” Curator Weston Naef never seemed to wish to consider what new juxtapositions Wagstaff would have allowed or wanted to make, perhaps the only way to convey the particularity of his vision. George H. Fox’s haunting young man in tux pushing back his hair to reveal his syphilitic lesions, Syphiloderma: Papulosum Circinatum, 1881, is not the same photograph it was in ’77. By keeping intact every single one of Wagstaff’s original juxtapositions, Naef may have been accurate to the archive but he wasn’t accurate to Wagstaff’s spirit. If the photo’s original pairing with the Gray Brothers’ Kimberley Mine, 1875, had been noted but the work itself placed next to one of Mapplethorpe’s bouquets, a Peter Hujar hustler, or a mysterious street scene by Judy Linn (images by all three photographers were part of Wagstaff’s collection before any of them were famous), the sad young man would have spoken more directly, the photo allowed to be what it has since become: a commentary on AIDS, forthrightness, and perseverance, not to mention an uncanny foreshadowing of some of Mapplethorpe’s final self-portraits.

Wagstaff died of pneumonia complicated by AIDS on 14 January 1987, the same day as director Douglas Sirk. The New York Times printed both men’s obituaries on the same page. Sirk’s headline read “Douglas Sirk, Made ‘Magnificent Obsession.’” The title of that movie could easily have served as as a title for the story of Wagstaff’s life. Guided by pleasure, and the idea that pleasure often seems useless, Wagstaff made people who were blind to photography’s art—at times indistinguishable from its documentary, fact-making artlessness—see and keep seeing.

Bruce Hainley is a contributing editor of Artforum.