Issue #208  10/20/2014
Photo Book Reviews: Before and After Mapplethorpe; Vladimir Birgus's Signature; Rowe's Arizona Stereographs

By Matt Damsker

WAGSTAFF: BEFORE AND AFTER MAPPLETHORPE. A biography by Philip Gefter. Liveright Publishing Corp. To be released November 2014. Hardbound; $35; 421 pgs.; ISBN No. 978-0-87140-437-4. Information: http://books.wwnorton.com.

Pop culture's enduring interest in the New York art stars of the 1970s and '80s will receive a jolt of adrenaline from the publication of Philip Gefter's brilliant biography of Sam Wagstaff. It was Wagstaff who spanned the key eras of post-World War II America as few, if any, in the art world, and it was Wagstaff whose relationship–as mentor, protector, and lover–with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe has taken on a legendary cast since their death from AIDS in the late 1980s.

Indeed, for anyone who may superficially view Wagstaff purely in the shadow of Mapplethorpe, Gefter's book makes clear how wrong that view is. After shuffling off the conformist coil of his youth–a youth marked by a Yale education and soldiering on the D-Day beaches of the War–Wagstaff rejected the prospect of life as a Madison Avenue advertising executive in favor of an iconoclastic embrace of the arts.

And so, from a perch as high-society bachelor of the Mad Men '50s, the impossibly handsome, debonair Wagstaff proved to be the anti-Don Draper, making his name against the grain of popular fashion. As curator at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, he mounted the famed first exhibition of minimalist art, "Black, White, and Gray." He clashed bitterly with rich patrons and museum directors not only in Hartford but also at the Detroit Institute of Arts before returning to New York in the early 1970s. He started revitalizing the downtown scene, and connected with a 25-year-old Mapplethorpe who was not far from the street life of his native Queens.

Wagstaff made Mapplethorpe possible, buying him pricey photography equipment and encouraging a photographic talent that would define the transgressive boundaries of '80s art. By the time of his death in 1987, Wagstaff had amassed one of the world's greatest photography collections and done as much as any single collector to establish photography as a gallery and museum medium.

Gefter chronicles this remarkable story–a story of Manhattan high life, gay life, and the caustic additives of money, gossip, and glamor–with tremendous erudition and knowingness (Gefter wrote on photography for 15 years at the New York Times). For all the sex-and-drug-drenched excesses of the '70s and '80s, Wagstaff was a man of vision, an early appreciator of Andy Warhol's silk-screened photographs and a collector "who brought the regard for detail and fine craftsmanship of a nineteenth-century connoisseur to the mid-to-late-twentieth-century world." To his contemporaries, Wagstaff set the aesthetic benchmarks for what was good in photography, and Gefter's book is a fitting testament to an artistic force that so shaped the visual world--before and after Mapplethorpe.

VLADIMIR BIRGUS: PHOTOGRAPHS 1971-2014. Kant/Muzeum Umeni Olomouc. Published to accompany the exhibition of the same name at the Olomouc Museum of Art, Czechoslovakia. Hardbound; 180 pgs; approximately 100 color and black-and-white prints. ISBN No. 978-80-87149-75-1. Information: http://www.olmuart.cz; http://www.kant-books.cz.

This important recent survey of Czech photographer Vladimir Birgus (b. 1954) affirmed his stature not only as one of Europe's key documentary artists, but also as writer, curator, and mentor to new generations of Czech image-makers, such as Tereza Vickova and Dita Pepe, as well as his work in gaining appreciation for the works of Frantisek Drtikol. Jaroslav Rossler, and Eugen Wiskovsky. With fine essays by Olomouc Museum of Art curator Stepanka Bielezkova, this luxurious tome locates Birgus as one of the titans of "subjective documentary photography," whose photographs, writes Bielezkova, "oscillate between drama, slapstick, voyeuristic invention, and perhaps also existential drama unfolding in the streets of big European cities against the background of ordinary days and slowly flowing history."

Such eloquence is more than well-reflected in the photos that chart Birgus's course, from the stark, grainy street photography of the '70s and '80s, when his lens looked toward the underclass, the homeless, the struggling souls who were otherwise being overlooked in the affluent glare of Brussels, Paris, London, Cannes, and other fleshpots of Europe. Birgus captured marches, manners, and disaffection all over the map, in Prague, Leningrad, Moscow, with a simple yet monolithic image of crumbling Russian steps on a footbridge standing in for decades of decay.

But as the 21st century dawned, Birgus didn't stand still. His images took on an ironic elegance and symbolic depth, as in a 1995 studio composition in which two entwined and gorgeous male and female nudes are offset by an old man standing darkly apart from their erotic ideal. More successfully, Birgus took a more naturalistic tack, with candid-seeming shots of bourgeois life casually arrayed, often back to camera, against urban barriers, with saturated colors (frequently red) accenting the flow and shadow of life amidst the architecture of past, present, and the escapist now. From New York to Nice to Melbourne to Hong Kong, Birgus's camera encounters and depicts a humanity unsure of its footing yet not quite adrift, pondering itself on azure beaches, or behind corporate glass. Increasingly, the subjective yet unjudging signature of Birgus is very much a feature of our unleashed world.

ARIZONA STEREOGRAPHS: 1865 TO 1930. By Jeremy Rowe. Carl Mautz Publishing, Nevada City, California. 306 pgs.; approximately 250 black-and-white plates; limited cloth and collector editions, paper edition of 800 copies. ISBN No. 978-1887694-58-7. Information: email cmautz@calrmautz.com; http://www.carlmautz.com.

Dr. Jeremy Rowe of Arizona State University has devoted nearly three decades to the study of 19th and early 20th century photography, with an emphasis on the little-known Arizona photographers whose stereographs and photo postcards comprise an important regional record of a bygone time. As he notes in this richly informative and beautifully reproduced collection, the Arizona of 1860 had a population of only 6,482, the vast majority being American Indian. Photos of that era are rarities, and the ones featured here are three-dimensional windows into a past of Apache scouts and stagecoaches, the mining towns along the Colorado River, the first forays into the Petrified Forest, towering Saguaro cacti, Grand Canyon, and the Arizona forts and camps of the American cavalry.

Rowe annotates these images with authority, and provides scholarly profiles of the seminal Arizona stereographers, from H.H. Edgerton, who entered the territory as early as 1864, to Carlos Gentile, the Italian-born photographer who established a Tucson gallery, to the many others who took part in government surveys of Arizona.

By the 1880s, such photographers as Carleton Eugene Watkins, J.C. Burge, and Cicero Grimes were making vivid records of the desert and its peoples. One can easily sense the power of such images as Burge's grouping of Apaches bathing in the Verde River, half-immersed in a broad plain of water that takes up three-quarters of the photo. Stereographs can hardly be more lifelike.

By the 1890s and into the 20th century, Arizona's landscape was increasingly marked by the mining works and other evidence of settlements and post-Civil War military occupation. The history of westward expansion is writ large in many of these images, and Rowe chronicles the burgeoning ranks of photographers and companies that profited from the appetite for stereographic and post card views of Arizona's magnificent sights, especially the Grand Canyon. But the real story is told in the images of the people and their dwellings--be they Native American, settler or soldier--that make a mark, for better and worse, on the timeless land.

A STANKO PORTFOLIO: In the September 22, 2014, newsletter, we noted several volumes from Stanko Abadzic, the prolific, Zagreb-based artist, and now comes another, more inclusive one--Stanko Abadzic: Portofilio, a gathering of Abadzik's urban journeys, from the heights of Prague, Paris, Zagreb, Berlin, and Istanbul, to the "Drugi gradovi," or other cities such as Beograd, Karlovac, Tokyo, and Maribor that may seem more marginal to Abadzik's project, but are just as evocative if not more so.

Described as a photographer/geographer and "scenographer of his own cultural geography" in last month's review, Abadzik carries the torch of European modernism and post-modernism with images that remind us of Henri Cartier-Bresson or Andre Kertesz while connecting, logically and fraternally enough, with the isolated human figures and architectural vision of Vladimir Birgus. But Abadzik is stark and severe where Birgus seeks colorful ironies.

For information on Abadzik's Portfolio, visit http://www.abadzic.de.vu. And for a broader view of his book output or to order one of his books, visit http://www.contemporaryworks.net/artists/artist_books.php/1/4783/0, phone +1-215-822-5662, or email info@contemporaryworks.net. To see Abadzik's photography go here: https://www.iphotocentral.com/common/result.php/256/Stanko+Abadžic/0/0/8.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005. He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.

(Book publishers, authors and photography galleries/dealers may send review copies to us at: I Photo Central, 258 Inverness Circle, Chalfont, PA 18914. We do not guarantee that we will review all books or catalogues that we receive. Books must be aimed at photography collecting, not how-to books for photographers.)