I became fascinated with Sam Wagstaff when I first viewed a portrait photograph of him by Robert Mapplethorpe shortly before Mapplethorpe’s death in 1989. In the years following, Wagstaff’s name featured prominently in many quirky anecdotes that friends and colleagues shared with me. Wagstaff led an enigmatic existence, was extremely discreet and compartmentalized, and I knew there was a lot more to his story than what people realized or tended to share. Mapplethorpe’s Whitney Museum retrospective in 1988 ensured that his legacy would survive, but Wagstaff’s fascinating life and career in the arts in the 1960s, 70s and 80s would soon be forgotten or at least little remembered.
Black White + Gray provided a rich opportunity to connect many of my passions—photography, twentieth-century painting and sculpture, Pop Art and Minimalism—with a character that I could identify with who represented near bullet-proof aesthetics and decisiveness in his pursuit and defense of them. Wagstaff was a type of tastemaker and risk taker who was extremely well connected to the New York art world of his times. Bold and provocative, he landed on the nascent scene for collecting photographs in 1973 and was booed when he showed up at an auction in London, wearing all black, and bid what was then considered high for an Irving Penn photograph. Wagstaff pushed buttons and pushed the envelope. His was an impulsive, intuitive drive to satisfy desire and to seek visual pleasure which in mysterious ways also cut across the grain of his personal life and sexuality.
I was also very drawn to the work and careers of both Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith. Later, in 1999 and again in 2001, I published books about Mapplethorpe’s photography. I had the opportunity to interact with Patti Smith when she contributed a text to a book I published on photographer Lynn Davis, another amazing talent from this circle who was extremely close to Mapplethorpe and Smith and who also made what I still consider the quintessential portrait of Wagstaff. The circles were getting smaller and smaller. There were so many connections that propelled me to cast my interest in these characters into a film.
Black White + Gray meditates on Wagstaff’s life journey and his transformation through shared passion and experience with Mapplethorpe. It points to how Wagstaff found his true role as a collector of photography and through Mapplethorpe was enabled to visit and unlock parts of his true self. It likewise gives new dimension to Mapplethorpe and his role inspiring Wagstaff in his early collecting of photographs. The film I hope demonstrates the symbiotic bond that grew out of a chance encounter in 1972 and how the work of both men continues to resonate today. When Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe made their first discoveries and triumphs in the medium, photography didn’t enjoy its present status nor the hyperbolic values now being realized at auction. I think both men would be amused by their joint influence, which continues to play itself out in the art world.