Book review: Wagstaff, by Philip Gefter

Gefter, Philip. Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe. New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2015. hardcover. 459p. $35.00. ISBN: 9780871404374.

Gefter WagstaffGefter tells the story of Wagstaff who was one of the most influential forces shaping the modern acceptance of photography as an art form. Gefter places the man in his many circles (old NY family, museum curator, photographic collector, and participant in the “gay mafia”). He traces Wagstaff’s personal growth from an active life “in the closet” to a public assertion of his gay identity, and especially his long relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The two met in 1972 and Wagstaff’s support (including a Hasselblad, a NYC loft, and critical art world connections) did much to propel Mapplethorpe on his career. Through a detailed account of Wagstaff’s growing understanding of photographs as an art form and his quest for images the reader is also given a lesson in the history of photography.

Author Philip Gefter is well acquainted with photography, having worked at the New York Times as picture editor and as a picture researcher at the Time/Life Picture Collection. He also brings an insider’s understanding to the gay side of this complex and fascinating story, having been an activist in NYC in the 70s and a founding member of Gay Men’s Health Crisis.

Though a hefty book, this is a delightful read. Anyone with an interest in photography should read it. If you read Patti Smith’s Just Kids, or Mapplethorpe: A Biography, this will provide another lens from which to examine these lives and those times.

Morgan Gwenwald, SUNY New Paltz

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