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If your eyes are the window to your soul, perhaps the art you collect should be considered a veritable autobiography. Surely this is the case for prescient tastemaker Samuel Wagstaff (1921–1987) who, from 1973 to 1984, amassed such a large and storied collection of photographs that he single-handedly established the market for fine art photography. The Thrill of the Chase: The Wagstaff Collection of Photographs was all the rage last winter when it debuted at J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, in conjunction with two collections of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe (one at the Getty the other at LACMA). Now a sizeable selection of this spectacular show is on view at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut through December 11, 2016.
In the world of photography, Sam Wagstaff was an influential man of wealth and taste. But to the general population, he became better known as the patrician mentor and benefactor to the famously provocative gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989), 25 years his junior. You may ask, as I did, how this blockbuster show found its way to a small museum in Connecticut. It turns out that Wagstaff was an innovative curator of Contemporary Art there in the 1960’s, to our great fortune. Fewer than two hours from Boston and even closer to Providence, this show rates a road trip.Wagstaff’s collection spanned every era and genre of photography, from its beginnings in the 1840’s to 1984, when he sold it to the J. Paul Getty Museum, which used it to establish its Department of Photographs. The exhibit pays tribute to Wagstaff’s meticulous historical representation, complete with brief explanations of the prevailing photographic techniques (salted paper prints, platinum or palladium prints, gelatin silver prints, etc.) to accompany the prints on display. The exhibit could well be a concise history of photography and the Wadsworth Atheneum has created a terrific installation. But that’s not the best reason to see it.
Wagstaff’s collection is thrilling, as the show’s title implies. The selection of prints on view is by turns exotic, daring, archetypical and beloved. The prints are beautifully preserved specimens, from Thomas Eakins’ “Male Figures at the Site of Swimming, 1884” (which Wagstaff purchased at auction in 1977 for $9,000 – the highest price he’d paid for an individual photograph to date) to the debonair portrait of Gustave Doré by the great French photographer Nadar (whose portfolio of 400 photographs Wagstaff purchased in 1975 for $69,000) to the winsome, iconic profile “Mrs. Herbert Duckworth, 1867” by the photographic pioneer Julia Margaret Cameron (whose print lot Wagstaff purchased at a British auction in 1974 for $120,000). There are many more examples of significant photographs and photographers on view. But there are better yet reasons to see this exhibit.
The Thrill of the Chase weaves fascinating stories of Wagstaff, of collecting, of photography as an art form, of our American culture. Wagstaff’s keen eye, dauntless spirit and insatiable appetite reveal a history of society through its art from the beginning of the modern era in Europe to contemporary America. That Wagstaff was a deeply closeted gay man can be inferred from his fascination with the male nude form, as well as dashingly stylish portraits of both genders. That he was not only highly educated but adventurous shines through in his predilection for exotic and bold imagery, from Egyptian pyramids shot by early itinerant photographers to modernist photograms by Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy to provocative street photographs by Diane Arbus and frankly disturbing images by Joel-Peter Witkin. It is an astounding collection and a captivating tour of the ways in which we are reflected and influenced by photography, through one collector’s intrepid eyes.
For hours, directions and more information about this show, go to: https://thewadsworth.org/exhibitions/the-thrill-of-the-chase/
For the collection-worthy exhibition catalog, The Thrill of the Chase, go to: https://www.wadsworthshop.org/products/the-thrill-of-the-chase-the-wagstaff-collection-of-photographs-at-the-j-paul-getty-museum
For Suzanne Révy’s superb book review of the exhibition catalog for The Thrill of the Chase, go to: http://elinspringphotography.com/blog/suzanne-revy-reviews-photo-book-collections-of-samuel-wagstaff-and-wm-hunt/
Feature Image: Installation image of The Thrill of the Chase: The Wagstaff Collection of Photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum visiting the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut through December 11, 2016 (photo by Elin Spring).