The Photography Curator and Collector known as Sam Wagstaff Jr (1921-1987)

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Friday 6 August 2010
Ron Brownson

Part one:

I watched Black White + Gray, James Crump’s documentary on Sam Wagstaff and felt dissatisfied with its perspective on one of the most influential curators of photography. The feature length portrait did not create a convincing portrait for me of Sam as an outstanding and incisive collector of photographs. It concentrated much more on the man’s personal life and his relationship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe.

Sam started forming his collection during 1973, purchasing widely and boldly across all periods but in particular pre-World War I material. A decade later he sold almost all of the collection to the Getty Museum and set that institution onto a strategic plan that quickly established one of the world’s key photography collections. The Getty’s photography curator Gordon Baldwin knew Sam personally and commented, “It was pretty clear that he came from a starchy background.”

In 1978, Gray Press issued A Book of Photographs from the collection of Sam Wagstaff in conjunction with an exhibition of the works at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery, that later travelled throughout America. This show alerted many museum curators that they just were not giving enough attention to the achievement of photography.

It is impossible to not be moved by this outstanding collection. It is totally heterogeneous and idiosyncratic. The images that Sam collected were not constrained by silly ideas about hierarchies of value. He mixed up categories in a way that no museum was then doing: travel and industrial, ethnographic and amateur, scientific and pictorialist photography. Sam refused to be constrained by notions that certain photographs were more important than others.

You can access Sam Wagstaff's archive at the Archives of American Art:

In my next blog I will show three favourites from his collection.