Headshot of Philip Gefter

Philip Gefter is the author of two biographies: What Becomes a Legend Most: The Biography of Richard Avedon, (Harper) and Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe, (Liveright) which received the 2014 Marfield Prize for national arts writing; and a collection of essays, Photography After Frank (Aperture). He was an editor at The New York Times for over fifteen years and wrote about photography for the paper. He was the photography critic for the Daily Beast in its early years and contributes frequently to The New Yorker: Photobooth and Aperture, the quarterly of photography. He produced the award-winning documentary, Bill Cunningham New York. He resides in New York City.


From the Introduction:

On the occasion of her starring role as King Lear on Broadway, the great British actor Glenda Jackson, by then eighty-two years old, asserted that Shakespeare remains the most con- temporary dramatist in the world “because he really only ever asks three questions: Who are we? What are we? Why are we?” These same existential questions underscore the body of portraiture produced by Richard Avedon in the second half of the twentieth century. We are all of the same species, he was saying, and with each portrait he made, regardless of whether it was of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Marilyn Monroe, Truman Capote, or a drifter in the American West, he rendered a specimen of our species to be contemplated in the context of his ongoing catalog of humanity, prompting us to consider ourselves over and over again, as if in mirror image: Who are we? What are we? Why are we? And, yet, in Avedon’s lifetime, he was dismissed as a “celebrity photographer”—an intellectual slur that stuck to him as gum on his shoe, and to which he was often quick to reply: “Don’t think about who they are; just look at their faces.”

Imagine the offspring of Marcel Proust and the Energizer Bunny—that’s who Richard Avedon was, a chronicler of fashion, an analyst of social types, the author in pictures of his era. And Philip Gefter captures him. His biography is an Avedon of Avedon. — Louis Menand

Mesmerizing…. Like Avedon’s blank white backgrounds, blasted with light, Gefter’s pages expose in a controlled and intelligent manner all the bigness and littleness of one of the greats. -Brad Gooch

A compelling, beautifully written examination of Avedon’s life as it reflects the larger cultural milieu of post-World War II New York, and, more importantly, an argument for the role of the artist in contem-porary society. –Stephen Shore

Revealing, fluent, and very well written—an exemplary biography of an underappreciated artist.Kirkus Reviews

From the Introduction:

As a curator, collector, and patron, Sam Wagstaff played a more influential role in shaping art history during the second half of the twentieth century than is widely understood, but his influence is often obscured in the glare of his notoriety as the lover, mentor, and patron of Robert Mapplethorpe. In fact, Mapplethorpe was only the last and most conspicuous of Wagstaff’s distinctions.

As a curator of contemporary art in the 1960s, Wagstaff set a standard at two leading American museums, the Wadsworth Atheneum and the Detroit Institute of Arts. In Hartford, he mounted several landmark exhibitions, among them “Black, White, and Gray,” the first museum show of minimal art, in 1964, and, two years later, the first museum show of artist Tony Smith. In Detroit, he brought the New York avant-garde to a conservative institution, creating not a little mischief in the process.

Wagstaff provided support and friendship to a roster of sometimes young, often unknown, artists throughout the 1960s whose names today constitute a pantheon of the era: Andy Warhol, Ray Johnson, Tony Smith, Agnes Martin, Richard Tuttle, Michael Heizer, Mark di Suvero, Walter De Maria, and Neil Jenney, among countless others. Mapplethorpe was the last in that long line—the only one with whom Wagstaff had a romantic relationship.

“I just couldn’t stop reading this book!… Sam Wagstaff was the ultimate collector–of talent, of beauty, of silver, of boys.  He had everything:looks, taste, money.  He almost invented the idea of photography as art, valuable art worth collecting.  This is a book not only about the New York art scene of the 70s but also about an entire generation.”Edmund White

“An admiring and absorbing biography… As cultural history, Wagstaff’s life story parallels the ascent of the gay rights movement in New York. Philip Gefter tracks the social changes that allowed Wagstaff to escape the charades and debasements of living as a closeted homosexual in the intolerant past.”
Deborah Solomon, New York Times Book Review

From the Introduction:

In the broad sweep of art history photography is just a blip, coming at the tail end of a long continuum that reflects and parallels the evolution of consciousness. From cave drawings to Greek sculpture to Italian frescoes to French neoclassical painting, artmaking over time is a story about increasingly refined tools, measured accuracy in representing the objective world, and eventually, a gradual progression into perceptual abstraction. Accordingly, it can be viewed as a sequential narrative that charts over thousands of years the simultaneous stages of necessity, invention, and imagination to reveal, ultimately, the manifest intelligence of the species in the complexity of human expression.

Still, during photography’s relatively brief history, the species has never been brought into sharper focus. Overall, photography has given us a self-adjusting clarity about who we are, what we look like, and how we behave, reflecting our world—individually, culturally, scientifically, and, ultimately, existentially—in ways unimaginable merely two hundred years ago. Whether the camera is a scientific, utilitarian, or artistic tool has ceased to be the relevant debate.

When people ask me what they need to do to understand the world of fine art photography, I tell them: go to galleries, preview auctions, and read the photography criticism in The New York Times. The Times suggestion was in large part because of the timely, eloquent, and provocative writing of Philip Gefter, the picture editor and photography writer for the paper’s Arts & Leisure section. Gefter has now left the paper although he continues to contribute as a freelance critic and you’ll now see his byline in other publications. But the good news is that Aperture has gathered his pieces in one volume that noone interested in photography should be without. James Danziger  

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