Over the past week I have been reading Patti Smith’s recently published memoir Just Kids about her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and her life in New York during the late 60s through the 1970s. Smith’s account of Mapplethorpe and their simultaneous pursuits in art, poetry and rock ’n’ roll is incredibly charming. I’m enthralled with everything she has to say—I love Patti. But aside from my personal infatuation, throughout the book Smith discusses the state of photography in the 1970s, recounted Mapplethorpe’s own movement toward the medium, deeply indebted to his relationship with curator and collector Sam Wagstaff, his patron and lover. Here Smith recanting her trips with Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe to purchase photographs, and how Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe’s personal interests in photography informed each other’s pursuits:
The three of us would scour Book Row, the dusty secondhand bookstores that once lined Fourth Avenue. Robert would go through boxes of old postcards, stereo cards, and tintypes carefully to find a gem. Sam, impatient, and not impeded by cost, would simply buy the whole box. I would stand aside listening to them argue. It sounded very familiar.
Scouting bookstores was one of my specialties. In rare instances, I would root out a desirable Victorian cabinet card, or an important portfolio of turn-of-the-century cathedrals, and on one lucky excursion, an overlooked Cameron. It was on the cusp of collecting photography, the last period where one could find a bargain. It was till possible to come upon gravure prints of large-format field photographs by Edward Curtis. Sam was taken with the beauty and the historical value of these photographs of the North American Indian, and acquired several volumes. Later, as we sat on the floor looking at them, in his large empty apartment flooded with natural light, we were impressed not only by the images but by the process. Sam would feel the edge of the photograph between his thumb and forefingers. “There’s something about the paper,” he would say.
Consumed by his new passion, Sam haunted auction houses, often traveling across the sea to acquire a specific photograph. Robert accompanied him on these expeditions, and was sometimes able to influence Sam’s choice of images. In this way, Robert could personally examine the photographs of artists he admired, from Nadar to Irving Penn.
Robert urged Sam just as he had John McKendry [then curator of photography at the Metropolitan] to use his position to elevate photography’s place in the art world. In turn, both men encouraged Robert to commit to photography as his primary form of expression. Sam, at first curious, if not skeptical, had now fully embraced the concept and was spending a small fortune building what would become one of the most important photography collections in America.
Patti Smith, Just Kids (2010)
And the Getty would purchases Wagstaff’s collection in 1984, the first major acquisition of photography by the institution, solidifying their committing to collecting the medium as well as securing photography as an artistic pursuit. Mapplethorpe’s own practice as a photographer would similarly solidity the medium as a museum worthy enterprise, even as it would also become a lightening rod of the 80’s “culture wars” (see Douglas Crimp’s “Appropriating Appropriation” in On the Museum’s Ruins and Richard Meyer’s Outlaw Representation). What I was most interested in by posting this section of Smith’s memoir is the personal recollection of collecting photographs—that they were “found” in used bookstores, sandwiched between the dusty pages of forgotten volumes of photographic land surveys, anthropological studies, and tourist guides. It is pertinent to consider that collections of photography were not amassed over a long period of time, like museums acquire the bulk of their objects, but instead many of the important photo collections of the 20th century were assembled relatively quickly in bulk, peaking in the 1970s. Museum exhibitions of photography do not signal the prior life of images Smith recalls.
Similarly, Reconsider also popped up in another reading this week. Over the past year I have also been working on an undergraduate thesis about Allen Ruppersberg’s 23 and 24 Pieces, two artist books Ruppersberg completed in 1969 and 71, specifically considering them in relation to Ruppersberg’s interest in Los Angeles in the late 60s/early 70s. Reyner Banham Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, published in 1971, is an important text I am discussing in relation to Ruppersberg work, as it was at the time one of the most engaged accounts of post-war L.A., discussing the city a particular urban environment with is own positive attributes. Banham’s L.A. is not incomprehensible sprawl or the dystopic future of America, as most urbanists discussed the city throughout the 60s.
It is fascinating to me that Banham continually looks to visual artists throughout his account of L.A.: David Hockney’s A Big Splash (1968) appears on the cover and Ed Ruscha’s Hollywood (1968) is similarly printed in the book’s conclusion. Also, Banham interviewed Ruscha in a 1973 made-for-TV documentary, Reyner Banham Love’s Los Angeles, in which he also visiting the studio of a Venice artist making “finish-fetish” “L.A. Cool” plastic sculptures. For Banham, the cool, easy-going, Pop sensibly of artists such as Ruscha and Hockney is indicative of the city itself.
I recently noticed that, in addition to reprinting Ruscha’s Hollywood painting, Banham also reprints Ruscha’s images from Thirty-four Parking Lots in Los Angeles, published the same year as Banham’s book, as examples of synonymous L.A. spaces, and does not treat them as “art” images. Ruscha is only attributed as the photographer in the image credits, where his painting is presented as a work of art. Thus, Ruscha’s parking lot pictures are utilized as informative images about L.A., not even “quasi-art photography.” That Ruscha’s parking lot photographs moved so freely between art and information demonstrates the fluidity photography enjoyed at this moment.
Consider also that simultaneously, photography’s proto-history was being assembled—salvaged from used bookstores by Sam, Robert, Patti and others. While Smith identifies the last moments before thorough institutionalization of photography, past and present, Ruscha’s pictures still relished in an interchangeable statue. While the acute formalism of Mapplethorpe’s work actively aspired the status of high-art, Ruscha’s deskilled photography would not escape the institution; these books are commonly displayed in art exhibitions today. Yet, these diverge history of the medium overlap, and explain the current position of photograph in museums and the wider cultural sphere.
-David Evans Frantz