Art, Getty Research Institute, Photographs, Film, and Video

Treasures from the Vault: Anticipating Mapplethorpe

Many researchers are looking forward to delving in to the Robert Mapplethorpe archive we acquired in February. However, there is an important complementary collection of equal interest available right now: the Samuel Wagstaff papers.

Self-portraits by Sam Wagstaff, 1960s or 1970s. The Getty Research Institute, Samuel Wagstaff papers, 1796-1987, 2005.M.46 Gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, Inc.

Self-portrait, Samuel J. Wagstaff, 1960s or 1970s. The Getty Research Institute, Samuel Wagstaff papers, 1860-1987, 2005.M.46. Gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, Inc.

Self-portraits by Samuel J. Wagstaff, 1960s or 1970s. The Getty Research Institute, Samuel Wagstaff papers, 1796-1987, 2005.M.46. Gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, Inc.

Wagstaff was a formidable curator and collector of photographs, as well as Robert Mapplethorpe’s partner for more than a decade (despite a 25-year difference in age between the two)—a story chronicled in the 2007 documentary Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe. Wagstaff was also one of Mapplethorpe’s most avid supporters, helping to shape much of his professional career. Mapplethorpe, in turn, influenced Wagstaff’s acclaimed collecting tastes.

Wagstaff sought what’s been described as the more “idiosyncratic,” “challenging” and “proactive” photographic works. After a brief career as curator, he began avidly collecting photographs in the 1970s, with an initial focus on 19th- and early 20th-century French, British and American photography. He amassed a comprehensive body of work at a time when scholarship on the subject of photography was limited, and the medium lacked the art historical stature it has today. The curator-turned-collector once stated that “the aesthetical photograph was a well-loved pleasure, which it seemed worthwhile investigating and worthwhile greedily having.”

Wagstaff ultimately amassed a collection of thousands of masterworks. In 1984 his collection of original photographs was acquired by the Getty Museum and became an integral holding from which the Department of Photographs was partly born.

Historic photograph in Wagstaff's collection, dated 1913.

Historic photograph in Wagstaff's collection, dated 1913. The Getty Research Institute, Samuel Wagstaff papers, 1796-1987, 2005.M.46. Gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, Inc.

The archive in the special collections of the Getty Research Institute documents the sources Wagstaff used to acquire photographs for his revered collection and the corresponding invoices and receipts from his purchases. The collection provides documentation and correspondence that track the exhibition schedule of objects in his collections as well as the constant requests Wagstaff received from others to study, exhibit, or publish his works.

Letter from Samuel Wagstaff to gallerist Ray Hawkins dated October 14, 1977, describing his Book of photographs from the collection of Sam Wagstaff

Letter from Samuel Wagstaff to gallerist G. Ray Hawkins dated October 14, 1977, describing his Book of photographs from the collection of Sam Wagstaff. He calls himself an idiot to be publishing such a book for $15. The Getty Research Institute, Samuel Wagstaff papers, 1796-1987, 2005.M.46. Gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, Inc.

Exhibition planning notes by Samuel J. Wagstaff

Exhibition planning notes by Samuel J. Wagstaff / The Getty Research Institute, Samuel Wagstaff papers, 1960-1987, 2005.M.46. Gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, Inc.

Exhibition planning notes by Samuel J. Wagstaff, 1980s / The Getty Research Institute, Samuel Wagstaff papers, 1796-1987, 2005.M.46. Gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, Inc.

Exhibition planning notes by Samuel J. Wagstaff. The top two pages are from Wagstaff II, 1981–86; the third page is from Erotica Show, 1981–84. The Getty Research Institute, Samuel Wagstaff papers, 1796-1987, 2005.M.46. Gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, Inc.

Yet, perhaps the most enticing component of the Wagstaff papers is the large snapshot collection Wagstaff created and maintained. The snapshots include images of his travels and cultured circle of friends including iconic portraits of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, as wells as portraits of himself.

It is also rich in erotic portraiture. Philip Gefter’s article in the 2010 issue of the Getty Research Journal notes Wagstaff’s erotic snapshots may have been a fundamental influence on Mapplethorpe’s photographic oeuvre, citing a “visual dialogue” between the two photographers.

The interconnectedness in the work and vision of the two men is inescapable. Both collections will provide ample opportunity for comparisons and rich scholarship.

“Treasures from the Vault” is an occasional series spotlighting the varied and unique holdings of the Research Library at the Getty Research Institute.

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