About the Film

Black White + Gray

A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe

A film by James Crump

Feature Documentary
Running time: 76 minutes.
Written, Directed and Produced by James Crump.

Yale-educated and born with a silver spoon in his mouth, Sam Wagstaff’s transformation from innovative museum curator to Robert Mapplethorpe’s lover and patron is intensively probed in Black White + Gray. During the heady years of the 1970s and 1980s, the New York City art scene was abuzz with a new spirit, and Mapplethorpe would be at the center of it. Wagstaff pulled him from his suburban Queens existence, gave him a camera and brought him into this art world that seemed to be waiting for him, creating the man whose infamous images instilled emotions ranging from awe to anger. In turn, Mapplethorpe brought the formerly starched-shirt preppie to the world of drugs and gay S-and-M sex, well-documented in his still-startling photographs. Twenty five years separated the lovers, but their relationship was symbiotic to its core, and the two remained together forever. The film also explores the relationship both men had with musician/poet Patti Smith, whose 1975 debut album “Horses” catapulted her to fame.

In the 1940s, Wagstaff had been a Navy Ensign serving off the coast of Normandy during the D-Day invasion of Omaha Beach. In the 1950s, Wagstaff was an advertising man, working for the storied Madison Avenue firm, Benton & Bowles. Wagstaff recognized the increasingly sexualized content of marketing and publicity campaigns of the period which hastened his own personal metamorphosis. A participant, as well as a catalyst of the period, Wagstaff’s life intersected the cultural divides that characterized postwar America—the Vietnam War and the 1969 Woodstock festival, for example—a moment tinged by conformity and later ruptured by rebellion and simultaneous revolutions in sexuality, politics, and art.

Curators like Wagstaff and the Metropolitan Museum’s Henry Geldzahler, Andy Warhol’s aesthetic adviser, acted more like artists during this time. At Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum and later the Detroit Institute of Arts, Wagstaff’s exhibitions, such as “Continuity and Change” and “Black, White and Gray” garnered national attention. Wagstaff was among the first to recognize the oncoming collision of art and fashion, music and clublife and he was a champion of Minimalism, Andy Warhol, and a coterie of forward thinking artists like Tony Smith, Richard Tuttle, James Lee Byars, Agnes Martin, Michael Heizer, Ad Reinhardt, Frank Stella and Ray Johnson.

The period was colored by club life, the emerging punk rock scene at CBGBs, Studio 54, and darker corners of lower Manhattan, like the Meat Packing District and the Chelsea Piers, where a teeming gay/SM demimonde was thriving. The film shows Wagstaff secretively transcending these various social strata, while Smith and Mapplethorpe edged toward notoriety and infamy with their respective work. Mapplethorpe, along with Andres Serrano and others, was at the center of a national debate about public arts funding at the National Endowment for the Arts or “NEA.” His work was labeled obscene by Senator Jesse Helms—a rallying cry for right-wing and evangelical conservatives attempting a stranglehold on the American electorate.

In 1973, Wagstaff inherited many millions of dollars and his collecting mania for photography emerged precisely during this time. Photography had yet to be recognized for it’s commodity value and Wagstaff quickly became the most influential collector of the period, while cultivating and projecting an often intimidating, bad-boy image of himself. The film shows Wagstaff’s full character—Wagstaff’s darker sides, his fallibility as well as his genius. The film dissects the most important acquisitions ever made in photography and how Wagstaff’s collection of over 2,500 masterworks from both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries became part of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Although Wagstaff’s collection sold for $5 million in 1984, some claim today its value may be ten times that sum in the present market for photographs.

Wagstaff’s story is one of personal transformation—from conservative, starchy, Yale-educated preppy to downtown habitué, hipster and experimenter. Both he and Mapplethorpe enabled each other to discover different parts of themselves—both men encouraged the other to mine new territory in the arts and in their personal lives as well. Wagstaff’s death from AIDS, in 1987, and later Mapplethorpe’s, in 1989, marked the end of an era. Black White + Gray reveals the powerful troika these two men formed with Patti Smith, and the influence their collective work continues to have over present-day art and culture.

Select Cast Profiles:

NARRATOR: Joan Juliet Buck is a writer and novelist. Her essays and interviews have appeared in Vogue, Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, Traveler, Travel + Leisure, and the Los Angeles Times Book Review. The author of two novels, “The Only Place To Be” and “Daughter of The Swan,” she is currently Television critic for Vogue.

Dominick Dunne is an American writer and investigative journalist whose subjects frequently hinge on the ways high society interacts with the judiciary system. He was a producer in Hollywood and is also known from his frequent appearances on television. He is perhaps best known for his monthly column for Vanity Fair magazine. Among Dunnes’ bestselling books include, The Two Mrs. Grenvilles, An Inconvenient Woman, People Like Us and The Way We Lived Then: Recollections of a Well-Known Name Dropper. He is the host of the Court Television series, “Power, Privilege and Justice.”

Patti Smith is an American musician, singer, and poet. She came to prominence during the punk movement with her 1975 debut album Horses. Called “punk rock's poet laureate”, she brought a feminist and intellectual take to punk music and became one of rock and roll's most influential female musicians.

Smith is often regarded as one of the most influential and important artists in rock history: Rolling Stone magazine recently placed her at #47 in its list of “The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.” Among Smith’s legendary and bestselling albums include, Radio Ethiopia, Dream of Life, Wave and Easter.

Dick Cavett is an Emmy-winning American television talk show host known for his conversational style of in-depth and often serious issues discussion. “The Dick Cavett Show” was among the longest running television talk shows and featured the most notable celebrities from entertainment, politics, the arts and popular culture.

Pierre Apraxine was curator of the Gilman Paper Company Collection of photographs. In March 2005, the collection became the most important acquisition of photographs that the Metropolitan Museum of Art ever made and, indeed, one of the most important acquisitions that any museum has made in this field. Pierre Apraxine, is an art historian, Fulbright scholar and old-world aesthete of aristocratic Russian ancestry who previously assembled a corporate collection of contemporary art for the Banque Lambert in Brussels and worked stints at the Museum of Modern Art and Marlborough Gallery before becoming Howard Gilman's visionary curator. Apraxine was co-curator of such landmark exhibitions as “The Waking Dream” and “La Divine Comtesse.”

Philippe Garner has been an auction specialist in photographs and twentieth-century decorative arts and design since 1971. He is a Director of Christie’s, and is their International Head in his specialist areas. Philippe has a particular interest in the story of fashion, beauty and celebrity photography and has published widely on this field, producing monographs on Cecil Beaton and 1960s photographer John Cowan and essays on numerous photographers including Richard Avedon, Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton.

John Szarkowski was named Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in 1962, and during almost thirty years in that position arranged more than a hundred shows of photography. He published The Photographer’s Eye in 1966, Looking at Photographs in 1973, and Mirrors and Windows in 1978. Szarkowski championed the work of Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, and William Eggleston among others, and in the process taught many others to examine the formal qualities of images rather than their intentions or their possible uses.

Jean-Jacques Naudet is Editor at Large for American Photo. A legendary editor of photographic publications, a champion of important image-makers such as Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton, and a key player in the burgeoning market for photographs, Naudet began his career with Paris Match and was highly instrumental in the evolution of Roger Therond’s influential collection of early French photography.

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders' fashion and celebrity images can be seen in magazines worldwide. He is on the masthead as a contributing photographer at Vanity Fair.

Greenfield-Sanders' documentary “Thinking XXX”, a film about the making of the XXX book, first aired in October 2004 on HBO. A CD of the soundtrack of “Thinking XXX” was released in November 2004 by Ryko Records.

Tony Smith (born 1912 in South Orange, New Jersey; died 1980 in Orange, New Jersey) was an American sculptor of minimalist outdoor pieces, many of them linear with great volume and of dark, smooth metal. He first trained as an architect and in 1939 began working for Frank Lloyd Wright. He also did some painting as a part-time student at the Art Students League but did not begin sculpting until 1956 when he was age 44. His first one-man-exhibition was curated by Sam Wagstaff in 1966.

Smith became close friends with Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothco, and Clyfford Still, and his sculpture shows their abstract influence.

A major retrospective, “Tony Smith: Architect, Painter, Sculptor,” was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1998.

Robert Mapplethorpe (November 4, 1946 – March 9, 1989) was an American photographer, famous for his large-scale, highly stylized black & white portraits, photos of flowers and male nudes. The frank, erotic nature of some of the work of his middle period triggered a more general controversy about the public funding of artworks.

Other cast include Ralph Gibson, Jeffrey Fraenkel, Richard Tuttle, Clark Worswick, Eugenia Parry, Ingrid Sischy, Raymond Foye and Agnes Martin.