The Reeler


October 19, 2007

Black White in Color

Reeler Interview: Documentarian James Crump on his enigmatic subjects Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe

Gray area: (L-R) Robert Mapplethorpe and Sam Wagstaff, the subjects of James Crump's new doc Black White + Gray (Photo: Teresa Mae Engle)

In Black White + Gray, filmmaker James Crump details the life of Sam Wagstaff, a man famous within art circles for elevating the status of photography as a collectable and notorious for his relationship with controversial artist Robert Mapplethorpe. The son of a wealthy family, Wagstaff followed his service in World War II with a successful career at a prominent Madison Avenue ad agency. But he was consumed with self-loathing, forced into the closet by the buttoned-down society in which he was raised. Wagstaff eventually quit the advertising game and became a curator, but it wasn't until the '70s when he finally found himself, ironically, through another: a daring young photographer named Robert Mapplethorpe.

Thirty years on, Wagstaff remains an enigma. Like the art of the man who would come to define him, Wagstaff's life was a juxtaposition of light and dark, of formality and deviance. The Reeler spoke with Crump about Wagstaff's influences, and his own.

THE REELER: What drew you to Sam Wagstaff's story?

JAMES CRUMP: I'm involved in the photography community -- have been for a number of years -- and actually the first time I saw Sam Wagstaff's image was in 1988. It was a photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe that I saw at the Whitney Museum's retrospective of his work, and from that moment I was really curious about who that person was. I found him intriguing as a portrait sitter, just incredibly handsome -- a very bold looking character. I didn't know anything about him. There were other people in the gallery who were very well known, and I just didn't know what his story was. And that's what really initially drew me to him. And over the years, I met a lot of people who knew him -- people in the photography or collecting community who actually spent time with him and knew him well. I would ask people for anecdotes about him and to share stories with him, and they did. I didn't really cast it into a film until I started thinking about it in 2002, and began production in 2004.

R: And his story has largely been forgotten, right?

He's someone I was intrigued by for a lot of reasons, but one of the reasons was he had an aesthetic with regard to acquiring photographs, and he was very strong about that. And it was a very decisive ability he had to go in, make selections and acquire them based on his desire, interest and his eye. He wasn't someone who was so widely known, and in a way he was forgotten about, except for a small circle of people who knew him. Some people knew him in different stages of his life. In the '60s there were people who knew him as a curator, and in the '70s you have people who knew him after he was Robert Mapplethorpe's lover. That's the moment he begins to go into photography.

R: Why was Wagstaff so interested in photography?

JC: I think the essence of photography was something he really identified with. Which is to say: time, memory and death. I think those key elements are what imbue photography. And those elements are ones he identifies with, not only as a collector, but as a person who's an intellectual, sensitive and emotive person -- the true essence of the medium.

R: How would you characterize Sam's and Robert's relationship? At times, they seem to be more business than romance.

JC: It wasn't simply a business relationship. I think it can be characterized as one in which each person is enabling the other to change or transform. And that's a large part of the story. Sam is transformed in certain ways, and I think Robert is transforming in others. Aesthetically, for instance, in the case of Robert Mapplethorpe, he's being enabled by someone who knows a lot about art, art history and aesthetics, and he's able to draw from that to evolve his own career. And I think, conversely, Sam is able to transform himself -- subconsciously, of course -- in more personal ways. For instance in his sexuality and even his appearance. He seemed, to me, to be able to relax, to become more of who he is, to embrace himself and explore his true identity. I think he was aided by Robert Mapplethorpe to do that because Robert is exactly 25 years younger [than Sam] and, as a different generation, just happens to be at the tail of the sexual revolution, the hippie movement and rock 'n' roll.

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R: So it was a symbiotic relationship? Because there are those in the film who believe Robert Mapplethorpe was exploiting Sam.

JC: Clark Worswick [curator and photography scholar] says it's a mutual exploitation, and I think in some regard it was. But that doesn't presuppose it was not symbiotic or negate it. I think they loved each other, enabled each other and -- you can look at it negatively or positively -- they exploited each other, to some extent. To reach certain goals or aspects they were trying to reach, and I think it's not a one way street -- it's mutual. Robert may have been manipulating Sam with regard to his affluence and needing to have things given to him, like properties, opportunities and objects. But Sam also needed to have validation as to his selections and acquisitions. And Robert, in a sense, is an acquisition.

R: The film only touches on issues like AIDS and the controversy surrounding Mapplethorpe. Were you worried they might overshadow Sam's story?

JC: No, I wasn't fearful in any way. I feel like I was trying to tell a story. The AIDS story has been told well and often, and the controversy has been recounted elsewhere in a number of places. It's essential to touch upon, but the line of the story was not going to be strengthened by spending more time on those topics. I was more concerned with pacing and the movement of the film. I did a good job with the pacing of the movie and being able to cover a very complex relationship, and do it without losing the entertainment value. And that's a concern of mine. A concern of mine as a filmmaker is the balancing act of not undermining the entertainment but also not to simplify the complexity of the story.

R: Besides familiarizing people with Sam's life, what did you want to achieve with this documentary?

JC: I think, in art history there's mythology that builds up around some artists. That's happened with great artists, like Diane Arbus and Walker Evans -- the greatest American photographer, as far as I'm concerned -- but I'm interested in really going behind the mythology and trying to see what it's all based upon. There's always more complexity and stories; there's always more going on than what appears in art history. I wanted to find out more about that relationship. I was really curious about that symbiotic element; and I was really curious about Sam's role in helping evolve the whole photography market as a collectable and simultaneously helping evolve the career of Robert Mapplethorpe. [The documentary] sheds new light and gives new dimension to both those men, and I was really interested in doing that.

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