Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe
Photos and Video
Two burgeoning artists-both of whom would become seminal icons in their field-once shared a loft apartment on West 23rd Street near the famous Chelsea Hotel. Before Patti Smith released her 1975 landmark debut album Horses, and Robert Mapplethorpe's photography was causing national debates about public arts funding, the two of them formed a unique troika with legendary curator and collector Sam Wagstaff. With this engrossing documentary, writer and curator James Crump makes a triumphant directorial debut by painting an illustrious portrait of the complex ties between these three visionaries. As the only one of them still living, Patti Smith, along with such luminaries as Dominick Dunne, Richard Tuttle, Eugenia Parry, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and Ralph Gibson, reminisce about a time when CBGB's, Studio 54 and the Meatpacking District (where a gay/S&M underworld had emerged) all were thriving. Poignant insights illuminate particularly the seminal relationship between Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe-lovers and catalysts for each other. Wagstaff was already a major figure in the art world when he met Mapplethorpe, having curated nationally recognized exhibits during his tenure at both Hartford's Wadsworth Athenaeum and Detroit's Institute of Fine Arts. He became the preeminent collector of photography at a time when photography had yet to be recognized as an artistic commodity, and was also the central force in the meteoric rise of Mapplethorpe's career. Crump meticulously illustrates the varied sides of these two enigmatic figures, and their close bond with Patti Smith, and arranges the pieces of this film-a story of love, friendship and personal transformation-into a carefully curated whole.
Director's Statement Collapse
I became fascinated with Sam Wagstaff when I first viewed a portrait photograph of him by Robert Mapplethorpe shortly before Mapplethorpe's death in 1989. In the years following, Wagstaff's name featured prominently in many quirky anecdotes that friends and colleagues shared with me. Wagstaff led an enigmatic existence, was extremely discreet and compartmentalized, and I knew there was a lot more to his story than what people knew or tended to share. Mapplethorpe's Whitney Museum retrospective in 1988 ensured that his legacy would survive, but Wagstaff's fascinating life and career in the arts in the 1960s, 70s and 80s would soon be forgotten or at least little remembered. Black White + Gray provided a rich opportunity to connect many of my passions -- photography, twentieth-century painting and sculpture, Pop Art and Minimalism -- with a character I could identify with who represented near bullet-proof aesthetics and decisiveness in his pursuit and defense of them. Wagstaff was a type of tastemaker and risk taker who was extremely well connected to the New York art world of his times. Bold and provocative, he landed on the nascent scene for collecting photographs in 1973 and was booed when he showed up at an auction in London, wearing all black, and bid what was then considered high for an Irving Penn photograph. Wagstaff pushed buttons and pushed the envelope. His had an impulsive, intuitive drive to satisfy desire and to seek visual pleasure which in mysterious ways also cut across the grain of his personal life and sexuality.
I was also very drawn to the work and careers of both Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith. Later, in 1999 and again in 2001, I published books about Mapplethorpe's photography. I had the opportunity to interact with Patti Smith when she contributed a text to a book I published on photographer Lynn Davis, another amazing talent from this circle who was extremely close to Mapplethorpe and Smith and who also made what I still consider the quintessential portrait of Wagstaff. The circles were getting smaller and smaller. There were so many connections that propelled me to cast my interest in these characters into a film.
Black White + Gray meditates on Wagstaff's life journey and his transformation through shared passion and experience with Mapplethorpe. It points to how Wagstaff found his true role as a collector of photography and through Mapplethorpe was enabled to visit and unlock parts of his true self. It likewise gives new dimension to Mapplethorpe and his role in inspiring Wagstaff's early collecting of photographs. The film I hope demonstrates the symbiotic bond that grew out of a chance encounter in 1972 and how the work of both men continues to resonate today. When Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe made their first discoveries and triumphs in the medium, photography didn't enjoy its present status nor the hyperbolic values now being realized at auction. I think both men would be amused by their joint influence, which continues to play itself out in the art world.
Film Information Collapse
[BWGRA] | 2007 | 77 | Documentary Feature
Directed by: James Crump
Foreign Title: (Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe)
About the Director(s)Collapse
JAMES CRUMP is a writer and director. He was formerly founding director of Arena Editions, a leading publisher of photography books, where he acquired, edited and published titles with and about leading figures in the field, including Vik Muniz, Peter Beard, Eugne Atget, Berenice Abbott, Lynn Davis, Robert Mapplethorpe, Sheila Metzner, Garry Winogrand, Walker Evans, Peter Lindbergh and Richard Misrach. Crump holds a PhD in art history from University of New Mexico and has served as curator of photography at the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research. He is the author of F. Holland Day: Suffering the Ideal (1995) and George Platt Lynes: Photographs from the Kinsey Institute (1993) and the co-author of When We Were Three: The Travel Albums of George Platt Lynes, Monroe Wheeler, and Glenway Wescott (1998). Black White + Gray is his directorial debut. He resides in New York City.