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Guest blog by Suzanne Révy
Sam Wagstaff’s insatiable curiosity about the medium of photography sprang from viewing two printed versions of Edward Steichen’s The Flatiron on view in an exhibition called The Painterly Photograph at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1973. The curator of that show, Weston Naef, describes Wagstaff as being “mesmerized by these particular pieces because they represented the skillful combination of the handmade and the mechanical, the representational and the abstract, and the intellectual and the sensual.” Wagstaff’s former indifference to the medium of photography took a sudden, one hundred and eighty degree turn, and the pursuit was on.
The Thrill of the Chase: The Wagstaff Collection of Photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum is a rich and captivating book that accompanies a traveling exhibition of the collection that will be on view at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut this fall and at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine opening in the winter of 2017. The book presents the collection in chronological order, and could be a solid primer for the history of photography, but there’s an additional quality and sensibility to the photographs in this collection that reveal something of Wagstaff’s own enigmatic persona.Born to a patrician New York family, Wagstaff attended Yale before serving in World War II. After the war, he started a career in advertising but gave it up in the mid-1950’s to study art history, which led to curating at the Wadsworth Atheneum and later at the Detroit Institute of Arts. In the early 1970’s, he found himself without a job but was fortunate to inherit a large sum of money when his mother died. Independent from any museum or institution, he was free to collect those photographs that spoke to him directly. As the reader leafs through the plates, one can sense a particular quality of light in the portraits, or perhaps a striking detail… the somewhat stiffly held hands of a young girl in an anonymous Daguerrotype, the folds of a checkered scarf in Nadar’s portrait of Gustave Doré or Léon Crémière’s humorous pack of dogs from the late 19th century that must have engaged Wagstaff’s eye. He learned about the medium and its history as he collected, pursuing pictures from well-known landscapists like Carlton Watkins and Timothy O’Sullivan, to early practitioners of documentary such as Thomas Annan, to the abstractions of Man Ray.
In addition, Wagstaff’s collection includes a number of vernacular and anonymously made cartes des visites from the 19th century (see Feature Image). Other images that resonate for me are the beautifully atmospheric and lyrical Eclipse Dance by Edward S. Curtis, Carl Moon’s tender Navajo Boy, Arnold Genthe’s touching portrait of Edna St. Vincent Millay amid the blossoms of early spring, and though I’ve never been a particular fan of the work of Martin Munkácsi, his Dromedaries in the Berlin Zoo is extraordinary. In studying this exceptional collection, it becomes obvious that Wagstaff’s own impassioned and visual sensibility echoes consistently in the emotional timbre of the work. The collection becomes a portrait of the collector.
Wagstaff’s collection gave me the excuse to finally purchase a book I’ve long coveted by a contemporary collector. W.M. Hunt’s The Unseen Eye, (Aperture, 2011) is another excellent example of a broad interest in the medium of photography through the lens of a singular and particular vision of a collector. In the preface, Hunt describes the collection as a manifestation of his unconscious, that each picture serves as a portrait of him and he suggests that the pictures in the collection will be revealed as portraits of his readers, as well. It’s a big, beautiful book, and opens with a gorgeous picture by Nathan Lerner from 1940 called Eye and Finger.
Equally captivated by both historic and contemporary photography, Hunt deftly sequences disparate works into a cohesive vision with a theme in which the eyes of those portrayed are hidden, obscured, averted or simply closed. Leafing through the pages of this book is a psychological journey through a broadly emotional range. There is the charming humor of a trio Ralph Eugene Meatyard images, including a blurry ghost and a boy facing away from the camera into a tree that appears to want to swallow him up or the wonderful row of rear ends in Frank Sutcliffe’s Excitement.
In addition to humor there are deeply disturbing images in the form of a seated headless cadaver in Joel Peter Witkin’s Man without a Head or Richard Drew’s Terrorist Attack (The Falling Man), depicting a victim plunging to his death during the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center. Many pictures are intriguingly mysterious: a lesser known Cindy Sherman, Untitled No. 105 (1982), which Hunt describes as “unusually subdued and discrete…”, Imogen Cunningham’s Veiled Woman, Alexandra Boulat’s Shahima, and a very small image from the 19th century, Hooded performer on a wire by Fratelli Alinari that is both perplexing and totally engrossing.
Hunt offers his thoughts about different pictures throughout the book, and in one such paragraph early in the book, he describes collecting photographs as a “visceral experience: you know you have found one that you have to acquire when the hair on the back of your neck stands on end, your heart pounds and you cannot move your feet.” Collecting seems to be an intense, obsessive force, one that bears a striking resemblance to the deep need of photographers like me to make pictures. I recognize that heart racing palpitation that arises when I’ve got my shot. In poring over these two absorbing collections over the last few weeks of summer, I am persuaded that both Wagstaff and Hunt are artists, and they have shown me that artists and collectors are two sides of the same coin.
Suzanne Révy is a Boston-based fine art photographer whose work is represented by Panopticon Gallery. She writes the blog, A Grain of Sand. To learn more about Suzanne’s work, go to: http://www.suzannerevy.com/ OR http://www.panopticongallery.com/artist/suzanne_revy/#Suzanne_Revy_40.jpg
The Thrill of the Chase:The Wagstaff Collection of Photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum
by Paul Martineau
With an essay by Eugenia Parry
and an introduction by Weston Naef
Published by the J. Paul Getty Museum
Los Angeles, 2016
The exhibition will be on view at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT from September 10th through December 11th 2016 and at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine from February 3rd through April 17th, 2017. https://thewadsworth.org/exhibitions/the-thrill-of-the-chase/
The Unseen Eye:
Photographs from the Unconscious
by W.M. Hunt
with an introduction by William Ewing
published by Aperture
New York, 2011
Feature Image: “Photographing New York City – on a slender support 18 stories above pavement of Fifth Avenue, 1905” (Detail) gelatin silver print by Underwood & Underwood (courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles).