Fine Art Photography

A Photo Collector Discusses the Influence of Sam Wagstaff’s Omnivorous Collecting

August 30, 2018


“Liberte, Promenade Deck, Port Forward,” a little known work by Walker Evans, dated about 1958, was part of Sam Wagstaff’s eclectic photo collection. Wagstaff’s taste, and his eye for underappreciated works, influenced collectors. John Szarkowski praised his "fresh viewpoint."

Some photo collectors focus on a single genre or artist, while others buy everything they love. In our story on how photo buyers purchase prints, we interview both kinds of collectors. The most eclectic collector, identified in the story as Richard (to respect the wishes for anonymity of some of the sources interviewed), says that his collecting style was profoundly influenced by a 1978 exhibition of Sam Wagstaff’s collection, shown at the Grey Art Gallery at New York University. Wagstaff, a curator at Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford in the 1960s, began in the early 1970s to collect photographs of every style and genre, from work by early pioneers such as William Henry Fox Talbot to contemporaries such as Richard Avedon and William Eggleston. Before the term “vernacular photography” was coined, Wagstaff also collected anonymous portraits, scientific images, stereographs and images by amateurs. The Grey Art Gallery show was not organized chronologically: Images were grouped according to what looked good together. “It was just spectacular,” says Richard.

Richard had studied under photo historian Beaumont Newhall and was versed in the canon of great photographers. “So I knew all the standard images that everyone knew and everybody wanted,” he says. What struck him about Wagstaff’s collecting was his eye for outstanding but little-known works. Influenced in part by his companion, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, Wagstaff amassed a collection driven by personal taste rather than prestige. The exhibition “was full of ‘names,’ but it had none of the images that everyone else had,” Richard recalls. Having now become a photography dealer as well as a collector, Richard says he often discusses the impact of that show, “because that’s how I’ve collected photographs ever since. I don’t really care about most of the standard images that are in the history of photography books.

In 1978, Wagstaff’s taste perplexed a critic for The New York Times, who couldn’t believe such an encyclopedic photo show didn’t include a single Alfred Stieglitz. Yet the critic sensed that Wagstaff’s wide embrace might one day be influential: “The exhibition does, by its very omissions and unexpected inclusions, suggest the possibility of a new view of photographic history.”

Wagstaff sold his collection of roughly 2,500 photos to the J. Paul Getty Museum in 1984, not long after the museum had formed its department of photography. Wagstaff died in 1987.  In Wagstaff’s obituary, John Szarkowski, then-director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, praised the collector’s “fresh viewpoint” and his ‘’salutary influence on the field.’’

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