The Photography Collector Who Legitimized an Art Form

Robert Mapplethorpe’s Partner Samuel J. Wagstaff Amassed a Trove of Images That Changed Fine Art Photography Forever

[Dali Atomicus]; Philippe Halsman (American, 1906 - 1979); 1948; Gelatin silver print; 27.3 x 34.4 cm (10 3/4 x 13 9/16 in.); 84.XP.727.12

If Robert Mapplethorpe popularized photography as a fine art form, his longtime partner Samuel J. Wagstaff Jr. gave it legitimacy. The former curator of the Wadsworth Athenaeum and the Detroit Institute of Art, Wagstaff started seriously collecting photographs in the early 1970s, around the same time he and Mapplethorpe began a romantic relationship. The pair were a fixture on the downtown New York art scene, and their joint promotion of photography soon piqued the interest of major gallerists and critics.

While Mapplethorpe perfected his iconic style, the independently wealthy Wagstaff made …

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