I watched this documentary with a bias and handicap. Before this film I had no clue about Sam Wagstaff. And then there’s Mapplethorpe. I never understood why anyone cared about his work. I never thought his photographs were all that great or shocking, and while I can understand the rationale of small minds that wanted them censored, I always thought their protests brought about more attention than the photos deserved. With these factors in play, I finished this documentary with a slightly different take on things.
The focus of “Black White + Gray” is on Wagstaff, a curator and collector who had a relationship Mapplethorpe. Wagstaff is a passionate man, though those passions changed over time, and one of his greatest contributions to society was that he brought the merits of photography into the art world. To be honest, Wagstaff is a fascinating figure. Born into money, delving into drugs, groping his way into group sex — he was as much a mystery as he was crystal clear. Mapplethorpe, however, is a different story.
The famed photographer isn’t exactly praised here. He is portrayed as opportunistic, exploitive, greedy, and perhaps a bit lucky. (Knowing more about the man makes me understand why his photos never appealed to me to much. They are as cold and lifeless as he was.) He, too, enjoyed the drugs and sex, but when it comes to personality there’s just nothing there that is all that special. Granted, anyone you put next to Wagstaff would be overshadowed, but even taken on his own Mapplethorpe is nothing but overrated.
The idiot’s irony is that Mapplethorpe is almost a household word, and Wagstaff isn’t. I call it “idiot’s irony” because that’s the easy thing to see. The reality of it is a bit different. Wagstaff, as detailed in the interviews with people like Patti Smith and Dominick Dunne, is more respected and liked by people who matter — the artistic and journalistic elite, many of them who are critical of Mapplethorpe and his actions. Who cares if a house husband in Minnesota knows of Mapplethorpe? Wagstaff’s mark and reputation lingers on in a way that affects all of society. He brought the world Mapplethorpe and brought photography to the forefront. Mapplethorpe just rode that wave and pissed off morons. I’ll leave it to you to judge which is more important, but I have my answer. And after you see this you’ll have one, too.