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When Samuel J. Wagstaff, Jr. began collecting photographs in the early 1970s, the world of photography was very different. Most museums had scant collections of photographs, and many did not collect the medium at all. The Portland Museum of Art purchased its first photographs—stereoscopic views of Portland—in 1972. As in the case of many museum collections at the time, those first purchases were very likely prized not because of their artistry, but because of the historic nature of what they pictured. Yet the early 1970s was a transitional period in the history of photography, with an increasing number of galleries that showed photographs, many photographs entering newly formed museum collections, new educational opportunities for aspiring artist-photographers, and—importantly—a critical mass of people interested in the history of photography. When Wagstaff began collecting, the medium itself was less than 150 years old, and the photography community was small, but growing rapidly. Many more people than ever before were called to photography not just because of what the images depicted, but how, in a metaphoric sense, those images spoke.
Wagstaff’s photography collection, which he sold to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 1984, is among the greatest such collections in the world. It charts the essential contours of photo-history in Europe and the United States from the 1830s through the 1970s, with its moments of dramatic competition and revelations; its heroes, heroines, and showmen; and its complex technical and scientific innovations. Thus, Wagstaff’s collection offers unparalleled insight into the dynamic history and expressive potential of the medium.
Early highlights of The Thrill of the Chase include two great large-scale photographs made by famed French photographer Gustave Le Gray in the 1850s—massive technical and aesthetic achievements by one of photography’s most vocal advocates. Throughout the 19th century, the exhibition reveals, photographers used the medium to depict distant lands and conflicts, such as the American West, the Holy Lands, and the Crimean war. As the collection charts the shift from Pictorialism through Modernism and into the postwar period, the exhibition offers many of the most celebrated photographs of each period. One of the great joys of the exhibition, however, is that its curator, Paul Martineau, followed Wagstaff’s lead by juxtaposing works that may be familiar to viewers, such as a superb print of Alfred Stieglitz’s stunning The Hand of Man (1902), with surprising masterpieces by unknown makers, including a rhythmic, almost vertiginous image of the interior of a circus tent in Paris (1901-02). Indeed, to walk through the PMA’s special exhibition galleries and experience The Thrill of the Chase, an exhibition drawn from highlights of Wagstaff’s superb collection and which closes on April 30, is to see the history of photography—a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It is somewhat astonishing, in fact, to ponder the thought that a medium just under 200 years old could be represented so extensively through the acquisitions of a single individual.
Despite the collection’s encompassing historical reach, Wagstaff’s primary interest (like many collectors and museum-goers today) was the sheer visual fascination of the photographs themselves. In 1978, Wagstaff himself wrote these few lines in a catalogue drawn from his collection: “This book is about pleasure, the pleasure of looking and the pleasure of seeing, like watching people dance through an open window. They seem a little mad at first, until you realize they hear the song that you are watching.” These two sentences poetically encapsulate what makes photographs—for those who love them—so dramatically evocative: the sense that we are seeing something tethered securely to the real world, yet also, as if by magic, removed and transformed.
The qualities of removal and transformation appealed to Wagstaff before he began to collect photographs at all, let alone at the amazing rate of thousands each year. Prior to purchasing his first photograph, he was a contemporary curator at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art (1961-67) and the Detroit Institute of Arts (1969-71). His curatorial interests were wide-ranging and he was alert and receptive to new ideas about art. At both institutions he introduced the art and artists of the 1960s to local audiences, not always to universal delight.
Wagstaff’s taste encompassed the fragile boundary between art that reveals the vital presence of the human hand and art that appears mechanical, or wrought by nonhuman force. Thus photography, with its dual history as a medium of description and scientific accuracy and a medium of artistic expression, was ripe for his attention. Curator and art historian Weston Naef described a moment of conversion for Wagstaff in which the nascent collector rapturously described a celebrated photograph by Edward Steichen as “Looking like neither a photograph nor a drawing, [but] floating in the visual ether as an invention all its own.” In that moment, we might imagine, Wagstaff divorced in his own mind the concept of the photograph as a picture of something important, and replaced that idée fixe with the possibility of genuine artistic expression. His first purchase after this moment was a series of platinum prints by British artist Frederick H. Evans, fine and subtle, of Kelmscott Manor, the country home of William Morris. Evans’ photograph of the manor’s attic, a study in repetitive geometry and tonal modulation, is included in The Thrill of the Chase.
One of the most important factors in Wagstaff’s deepening relationship with the medium of photography was his love for the artist Robert Mapplethorpe, whom he met in 1972, just one year before he began buying photographs. Wagstaff nurtured and supported Mapplethorpe’s burgeoning career, particularly in its early years. In return, he valued Mapplethorpe’s advice as both men built photography collections and as Mapplethorpe became one of the most important photographers of his generation. Although their romantic relationship was intense and short-lived, their lifelong connection to one another lasted until the two men died, Wagstaff in 1987 and Mapplethorpe in 1989, both from complications due to AIDS. Their legacies are permanently intertwined, although interestingly, their collections are not: when Wagstaff sold his collection of 18,000 works to the J. Paul Getty Museum in 1984, he included not a single print by Mapplethorpe.
This blog post first appeared as a feature in the Spring 2017 issue of Inside the Circle, the PMA's quartlerly members magazine. To receive this magazine in the mail for features like this and a lot more, join today!
Image credit: Lisette Model (United States, born Austria, 1901-1983), Running Legs, Forty-Second Street, New York (detail), 1940-41, gelatin silver print, 19 5/16 x 24 1/8 inches. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 84.XP.789.7 © Estate of Lisette Model, courtesy Baudoin Lebon/Keitelman
Jessica May, PMA Deputy Director and Robert and Elizabeth Nanovic Chief Curator, was the project director of the museum’s acclaimed reinstallation project, Your Museum, Reimagined. May served as co-curator and co-author of Richard Estes’ Realism (PMA and Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2014), and curated the 2013 Portland Museum of Art Biennial, Piece Work. Her research and curatorial interests include the history of documentary practice, contemporary photography, and postwar figurative painting in America. Prior to coming to Portland, May was Associate Curator of Photographs at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas. She is the co-author of American Modern: Documentary Photography by Abbott, Evans, and Bourke-White (University of California Press, 2010), and the Subhankar Banerjee: Where I Live I Hope to Know (ACMAA, 2011). She graduated from Barnard College and received her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, where she wrote a dissertation on Walker Evans. She lives in South Portland with her partner and son.