BLACK WHITE + GRAY: A PORTRAIT OF SAM WAGSTAFF AND ROBERT MAPPLETHORPENR
Acquisitiveness may be considered a venal sin by some, but in Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe, this obsession attains a particular fascination. James Crump’s documentary covers the lives of Wagstaff, photographic collector extraordinaire, and the artist he discovered, Mapplethorpe. It’s an absorbing, if at times plodding, portrait of heady times in New York from the wild, anything-goes ’70s to the more financially minded, ultimately tragic AIDS-ridden ’80s, with a look at the repressive—especially for gay men—era which preceded those years.
Wagstaff was a blue-blood Manhattanite who seemingly had it all, from a gauntly devastating Sam Shepard handsomeness to a discerning intelligence and eye for art. He pioneered the idea of photography as an art form which could command prices as high as paintings. This groundbreaking aesthetic discovery should have been no surprise to anyone, as the ever-avant Wagstaff was one of the earliest champions of Minimalist art, having already curated an innovative exhibition of that ’70s movement. He met Mapplethorpe when the latter was a comely street hustler and gave him entrée into the highest echelons of the art world, fueling his rapid rise to stardom as a photographer with an aesthetic that combined the classic with the transgressive.
The various friends and art experts interviewed—Dominick Dunne, Tukey Koffend, Jeffrey Fraenkel, Eugenia Parry, Pierre Apraxine—seem to take Wagstaff’s side of the story, repeatedly stating how, if not for him, Mapplethorpe would never have attained such an early, great success. Mapplethorpe’s big champion here is his early, staunch friend Patti Smith, whose memory of both men is ideally idyllic, never more so than at the end of the film, when she recites the lyrics of a touching song she wrote about both of them, early victims of AIDS.
Unfortunately, first-time filmmaker Crump chooses to layer Smith’s actual sung recording over her reading, which completely dissipates its effect. This ham-handed interpolation of irrelevant footage is the chief demerit of his movie. Earlier, he intercuts clips from the movies Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Pillow Talk, to underline the closeted nature of the times Wagstaff grew up in, which seems like so much empty thesis-padding. An early black-and-white interview with Wagstaff talking about photography is also overused; more judicious cutting would have made it seem more trenchant, rather than ramblingly repetitive.
More should have been made here of Wagstaff’s actual, painstakingly acquired photo collection, which he sold to the J. Paul Getty Museum in 1984 for $5 million. A few examples, like a campily gorgeous Cecil Beaton portrait of Marlene Dietrich, are individually considered, but the fact that this collection was Wagstaff’s greatest legacy should have warranted more serious investigation. Crump seems a bit overly concerned with Wagstaff’s choice, after he’d divested himself of the photos, to collect Early American silver. Again his chosen pundits weigh in, with their subjective head-shaking and tsk-tsk’ing over this supposedly inferior pursuit. It might have been salutary to include an actual silver expert among them to make a case for the legitimacy of a pursuit into which Wagstaff poured just as much fanatical energy and thought.
Finally, the film is far more about Wagstaff than Mapplethorpe, whose important life apart from his involvement with Wagstaff is given extremely short shrift. This would not be so bothersome were it not for the title of the movie, which purports to be a portrait of both of them, not just one.