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Black, White + Gray
Black White Gray
Actors: Patti Smith, Dominick Dunne, John Szarkowski, Sam Wagstaff, Robert Mapplethorpe
Director: James Crump
Genres: Documentary
NR     2008     1hr 29min

Explores the complex relationship between two major forces in the photography world legendary curator Sam Wagstaff and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe who in the 1970s and 1980s were at the epicenter of New York's revolut...  more »


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Movie Details

Actors: Patti Smith, Dominick Dunne, John Szarkowski, Sam Wagstaff, Robert Mapplethorpe
Director: James Crump
Creators: Paul Lundahl, David Koh, Christopher Felver
Genres: Documentary
Sub-Genres: Documentary
Studio: Arts Alliance America
Format: DVD - Color
DVD Release Date: 04/01/2008
Release Year: 2008
Run Time: 1hr 29min
Screens: Color
Number of Discs: 1
SwapaDVD Credits: 1
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 1
MPAA Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Languages: English

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Movie Reviews

Sam Wagstaff Remembered
H. F. Corbin | ATLANTA, GA USA | 05/03/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)

"While this extremely-well done DVD is called "Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe," it essentially belongs to Wagstaff, the patrician photography collector who had an enormous influence on the career of Mapplethorpe, as his lover (although there was exactly a twenty-five-year difference in the ages of the two men since they were both born on September 4), adviser and patron. While this film does not address the subject, most historians credit Wagstaff as being the person who advised the photographer to print and sell fewer rather than more of his photographs in order to drive their prices up.

Wagstaff's life and influence in the art world unfold as told through his own words-- a speech he gave at the Corcoran Museum is included on the DVD-- as well as commentary by Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith, Dominick Dunne, Eugenia Parry, John Richardson, Ralph Gibson, John Giorno et al. The picture we take away from this documentary of Wagstaff is that of a man born into money, extremely handsome with a good sense of humor, who insisted on being who he was and living life on his own terms, whether it was buying and collecting photographs or spending his evenings in places like the Anvil Bar in New York. Commentator after commentator uses the word "compartmentalize" to describe the many facets of Wagstaff's life. He said that rather than spend much time reading about photography, he rather chose to look at the pictures and that photography should be, in his words, pleasant.

A little of the writer John Dunne goes a long way with me. I remember not being much taken with his article about the death of Mapplethorpe published in "Vanity Fair." John Richardson's criticism that the some of his photographs do not work because the subject matter (the SM/leather kink) is in sharp contrast to the beautiful way Mapplethorpe photographs them is dead wrong. I would argue that that is what makes them unique. The photographer John Bianchi has said that the difference between pornography and art is in the lighting. Mapplethorpe's images reinforce that statement. Jesse Helms, that great former senator from North Carolina, reminds us also that the photographer was a child molester. Goodness, what a statesman he was! On the other hand, Patti Smith reads a moving poem/song that she wrote to honor Wagstaff after his death.

The DVD has a good sampling of the photographs that Wagstaff collected and some of his own photographs that were usually self-portraits and fewer of Mapplethorpe's although the photographer is well represented by the many books and catalogues of his work that have been published.

The footage about the deaths of these two men from AIDS, Wagstaff in 1987 and Mapplethorpe in 1989. is of course terribly sad as is the way this film ends with the names and dates of their deaths of the many artists in all fields who died of this horrific disease. The voice-over reminds us that they are irreplaceable.
Robert in the Background
Jeffery Mingo | Homewood, IL USA | 04/02/2008
(4 out of 5 stars)

"One would assume that artists are more famous than their patrons. You may think that this documentary would be about the two men equally. It's not; it's mostly about Sam Wagstaff. I am an African-American man who is greatly offended by many of Mapplethorpe's fetishizing photos presented in his "Black Book," so I didn't mind that he was not the focus here. However, his diehard fans may be disappointed.

Though the title of the film seems to have come from an art exhibit, it may allude to the relations between Wagstaff, Mapplethorpe, and a 1970s musician named Smith. A few of the interviewees said Robert used Sam to garner fame. However, it is never stated directly that the two lovers must not have been monogamous with each other. For those who are interested in the dynamics between gay lovers, especially cross-generational ones, this may be particularly interesting. A student could write a paper comparing this couple to Rimbaud and Verlaine, Wilde and Douglas, and several others.

The work would be accessible to almost all viewers. Still, since it speaks about art scenes and New York high society and Capote's ball and Christy's auctions, it may feel very elitist and snobby to some. The work emphasizes that Wagstaff was an important arbiter of good taste, but something about his collections did seem obsessive-compulsive. This is not Liberace where some can laugh at the gaudiness and decadence. Wagstaff's scene and entourage seemed quite exclusive and highbrow.

In 1993, Newsweek had a cover story about artists and AIDS. This work reminds me of that in that it lists the names and dates of deaths of many artists who have succumbed to the virus. Though I was not familiar with several of them, it still broke my heart. The overall tone of the documentary is not somber, but some may shed a few tears at this poignant moment in the work."