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Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff + Robert Mapplethorpe

4.8 out of 5 stars 6 customer reviews

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(Apr 01, 2008)
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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

Black, White + Gray examines the life and lives of influenital curator and collector, Sam Wagstaff, a vertitable force in the art world for nearly three decades. The film reveals the symbiotic relationship Wagstaff shared with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in New York during the heady years of the 70s and 80s. Bonus feature includes an additional interview with Sam Wagstaff at the Corcoran Museum.


Sam Wagstaff was a Vanity Fair cover waiting to happen. He was handsome, wealthy, cultivated and connected, not to mention the lover and mentor of the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Both men died of AIDS in the late '80s. Each man was a sexual outlaw, and a sense of outlawry marked their cultural lives no less than their private ones, as seen in James Crump's absorbing 2007 documentary. The narration is delivered in rather hard-bitten tones by writer Joan Juliet Buck. "Black White + Gray" demonstrates a rare degree of intelligence, sophistication and frankness. It reminds us just how pedestrian, even gee-whiz, what passes for cultural documentary on something such as PBS' "American Masters" is. The DVD includes a 1978 talk by Wagstaff. --Seattle Post Intelligencer

Special Features


Product Details

  • Actors: Patti Smith, Dominick Dunne, John Szarkowski, Sam Wagstaff, Robert Mapplethorpe
  • Directors: James Crump
  • Format: Color, NTSC
  • Language: English
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only. Read more about DVD formats.)
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated:
    Not Rated
  • Studio: Arts Alliance America
  • DVD Release Date: April 1, 2008
  • Run Time: 89 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: B0013PVGLS
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #218,622 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)

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By Foster Corbin TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 2, 2008
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.
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A film like this shows how two great talents can come together and bring out the best of both. Sad and powerful at the same time, these two creative human beings were meant for greatness and to be together.
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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.
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