Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe (2007) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • A documentary on the relationship between curator Sam Wagstaff, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and musician/poet Patti Smith.

  • A look at the life and contribution of Sam Wagstaff (1921-1987), curator, trend-setter, collector of photographs, and lover and guide to Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989), told chronologically with archival footage, photographs, and contemporary interviews. Wagstaff is upper class, handsome, and gay, reinventing himself after World War II as a curator, with extraordinary success. By the 1970s, he's friends with Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith, his mother has left him a fortune, and he's collecting old photographs by the score. Many who comment discuss his largely forgotten contribution to art - the discovery of photography. The film sets the record straight.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • Yale-educated and born with a silver spoon in his mouth, Sam Wagstaffs transformation from innovative museum curator to Robert Mapplethorpes 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, Wagstaffs life intersected the cultural divides that characterized postwar Americathe Vietnam War and the 1969 Woodstock festival, for examplea moment tinged by conformity and later ruptured by rebellion and simultaneous revolutions in sexuality, politics, and art.

    Curators like Wagstaff and the Metropolitan Museums Henry Geldzahler, Andy Warhols aesthetic adviser, acted more like artists during this time. At Hartfords Wadsworth Atheneum and later the Detroit Institute of Arts, Wagstaffs 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 Helmsa 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 its 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 Wagstaffs full characterWagstaffs darker sides, his fallibility as well as his genius. The film dissects the most important acquisitions ever made in photography and how Wagstaffs 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 Wagstaffs collection sold for $5 million in 1984, some claim today its value may be ten times that sum in the present market for photographs.

    Wagstaffs story is one of personal transformationfrom conservative, starchy, Yale-educated preppy to downtown habitué, hipster and experimenter. Both he and Mapplethorpe enabled each other to discover different parts of themselvesboth men encouraged the other to mine new territory in the arts and in their personal lives as well. Wagstaffs death from AIDS, in 1987, and later Mapplethorpes, 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.

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