DATELINE: Portrait of a Photographer
Scavullo portrait 1974
Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe remains controversial 25 years after his death, an early victim of AIDS in 1989. He died a millionaire, through pluck, luck, and Sam Wagstaff.
As a flashpoint, Black White + Gray is also compelling and repelling.
Ardent, if not passionate Mapplethorpe followers often refuse to hear about how the photographer managed to amass fame and fortune like a street hustler.
If gay marriage had been available back then, we’d say he married into the right circles like a character out of a Dominick Dunne novel. Indeed, Dunne knew them well.
In the 1970s, shortly after the Stonewall inception of gay liberation, Mapplethorpe met millionaire art collector, curator, classically handsome, advertising kingpin Sam Wagstaff. Through the connections and money of Wagstaff, Mapplethorpe gained a foothold with his luscious photos of flowers—and later shocking pictures of the bondage-leather scene of the 1980s.
Wagstaff made a mark in Manhattan, coexisting with Warhol and Capote in the closeted 1950s and early 1960s. He became unbuttoned and undone when he found his matchmate in the erotic boytoy Mapplethorpe who opened doors for his new partner.
They were comparable to Taylor and Burton in the gay scene.
Different in every polarizing way, they were hopelessly attracted to each other. Some thought the photographer used the older man, but it was definitely consenting and symbiotic.
The documentary about them focuses more on Wagstaff, now largely forgotten. He seemed to become infected with the attraction of Mapplethorpe and the extreme sexual scene that led to his death from AIDS in 1987. He left his collection and entire estate to his friend, also sick and dying in 1989. Mapplethorpe increased his fortune by selling Wagstaff’s silver collection in the months before he died in March of ’89.
James Crump’s film provides historical reference, fascinating gossip, and avant-garde orientation of art of the 20th century, for those looking to understand the impact of gay innovators on American culture.