Book review: Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe

Book review: Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe

While most photography aficionados know of the famous Robert Mapplethorpe who changed the photography world with his shockingly exposed photos, many forget about his biggest fan, lover, and benefactor Sam Wagstaff. Wagstaff was a collector and curator who first brought appreciation to photography as an art form. While Mapplethorpe was a huge part of his life, he was just a small piece to a larger collection that makes up Samuel Wagstaff. Philip Gefter’s book Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe gives an inside look into the life of Sam Wagstaff. The book brings his multifaceted personality to life, showing us that he’s more than his dashing good looks, more than his distinguished family background, and more than Mapplethorpe.


In the beginning of his career Wagstaff was not a supporter of the photographic medium. He shared the prejudices that belonged to the majority of the art world, that the only reason a photograph could be beautiful is if the subject matter itself was beautiful, as opposed to texture, form, and color. That is, until he attended a show at the Met with Robert Mapplethorpe in January 1973 and came across two prints by Edward Steichen, entitled The Flatiron.


After seeing The Flatiron, Sam’s love for photography took hold. When Wagstaff began his photograph collection, one that mostly consisted of Nineteenth-century photography, people thought he was going crazy—perhaps not as crazy as his silver collection that formed near the end of his life, but still out of his mind. His collection began in a time where photos weren’t valued as artistic work, could be bought cheaply in antique and junk stores, and weren’t handled in a careful manner. Eventually the rest of the community caught on, and the photo emerged as an advanced medium.


This biography of Wagstaff’s life not only touches on his professional career, but on his intricate desires. It spotlights the complicated relationships he held with Gerald Incandela, Mark Kaminsky, Jim Nelson, and of course Robert Mapplethorpe. The book also gives a glimpse into the New York art scene in the 1970s, with a remarkable social scene and insight into the favorite hangouts and habits.


Gefter brings you through the most crucial events of Wagstaff’s life, from his Black, White, and Gray exhibition, to the intimacies he exchanged between his lovers, and finally into the horrors of his sickness with AIDS. We are present with him, cradled in Jim Nelson’s arms, as Sam Wagstaff passes away. The readers fall in love with the social butterfly, art genius, and passionate man that was Sam.


Philip Gefter’s biography Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe, is a must-read for those interested in a behind the scenes look at the life of a major cultural icon of the 20th century.

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