Black, White + Gray
James Crump’s documentary revisits the contentious work, life and times of seminal 80s photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The artist’s legacy is re-examined through a close study of the life of his partner and patron, the curator and collector, Sam Wagstaff. By displaying a fairly staid fascination with Wagstaff’s ‘transformation’ from visionary curator to Mapplethorpe’s lover, and by pronouncing the supposedly shocking revelation that a man in the late 70s could both attend significant art conventions and late-night meatpacking district parties, Black, White + Grey does not cause as much rupture as the filmmaker may have intended.
Meditations on the art of photography and the roles of the art collector and curator only just manage to save this film from a lurid biographical pitfall. The adorable Patti Smith talks warmly of her friendship with Sam and Robert, but most interestingly, about Wagstaff’s photography collection. Hailed as the first collector to place value on the anonymous snapshot, Wagstaff’s obsessive collecting is presented as an art. Cramp places a subtle emphasis on the distinctions between one who chooses to make and become art, and one who chooses to shuffle it, creating relevancies, nuances and juxtapositions, but remaining always masked. A considered move, which brings poignancy and interest to this otherwise sensationalist documentary. Minimal extras.