James Bidgood, a master of gay photography, dies at 88

ByDavid M. Conte

Feb 7, 2022

James Bidgood, who elevated campy gay photography in the 1960s and 70s with his carefully staged spooky imagery, and who was the anonymous director of ‘Pink Narcissus’, a gay film released in 1971 that became something of a a cult classic, died on January 31 in Manhattan. He was 88 years old.

Brian Paul Clamp, director of his gallery, ClipArt, said his death, in a hospital, was caused by complications related to Covid-19.

Mr. Bidgood, who came to New York from Wisconsin at 18, was a drag performer in the 1950s at Club 82 in the East Village, where he also sometimes designed sets and costumes. In the early 1960s, he was taking photos for men’s physique magazines like Muscleboy.

“They were poorly lit and uninspiring,” he told The New York Times in 2011. “Playboy had girls in fur and feathers and lights. They had faces like beautiful angels. I didn’t understand why photos of boys weren’t like that.

He started trying to change that. He staged photographs, mostly in his Manhattan apartment, that were lavish fantasies full of mythological references, adventurous lighting and props, and attractive men – sometimes in suits, sometimes without anything. The images, some of which ended up on magazine covers, were both erotic and fun.

“Enchanted scenes of languid divine figures in ersatz splendor are rendered with such theatrics of gesture, mood, color, texture and fabric that they parody the very desire they are designed to elicit,” said writes Philip Gefter about Mr. Bidgood’s work in the photography magazine. Opening in 2008.

From 1963, Mr. Bidgood was also shooting the film which, in 1971, would become “Pink Narcissus”, the loosely plotted story of a gay hustler’s fantasies. Mr. Bidgood not only directed it, but also designed all the costumes and sets, most of which (including a men’s room with a row of foam urinals) were in his apartment.

Vincent Canby, reviewing the film in The Times when it opened in two Manhattan theaters in May of that year, dismissed it as “a passive, tackily decorated surreal fantasy of that pre-gay era- activist where gay people hid in closets and read novels about sensitive young men who committed suicide because they couldn’t go on.

But neither Mr. Canby nor the film’s audience knew who it was; Mr. Bidgood’s backers had taken control of the project from him and released a version of the film he did not like, and his name had been removed from the credits. For years, as the movie gained traction in the gay world, guessing who made it was a board game. The name of Andy Warhol has often been suggested, among others.

Eventually, Mr. Bidgood’s role became well known, especially after the 1999 publication of “James Bidgood,” a monograph that included a biography of Bruce Benderson. The film began appearing at festivals across the country, and Mr. Bidgood’s largely forgotten photography from the 1960s and 1970s was reappraised. In 2001 there were exhibitions of his pictures in Italy, in Provincetown, Mass., and at the Paul Morris Gallery in Manhattan.

Ken Johnson, reviewing the Paul Morris show in The Times, called Mr Bidgood “a brave pioneer at a time when fine art photography was extremely straight (formally and sexually) and the idea that pornography could contribute to serious artistic projects was almost unthinkable.”

The photograph Lissa Rivera curated another exhibition, “Rêveries”, at the Museum of Sex in New York in 2019.

“Since working with Bidgood’s materials,” she said via email, “I’ve come to understand the profound significance of her work to so many queer people, who have shared with me that they don’t hadn’t seen being gay as beautiful in the same way before seeing The Work of James.

Her photographs, she noted, were made at a time when erotic imagery and gay lifestyles faced significant legal restrictions.

“His work for men’s physique magazines existed on the edge of legality,” she said. “Despite this, Bidgood was never shamed or locked up. He lived a totally uncompromising and expressive life.

James Alan Bidgood was born March 28, 1933, in Stoughton, Wisconsin, and grew up in the Madison area. As a boy, he says, he was drawn to the imagery of the Ziegfeld Follies and similar spectacles, a fascination that years later was reflected in his photographs.

“He didn’t see himself as an artist per se,” Ms. Rivera said, “but rather saw himself as driven by the need to create visual proof of his desire, which came from being a little boy enthralled by musicals. Hollywood films were steeped in queer subtext, often thanks to their hidden creators.Bidgood presented this subtext with clear and direct expression and created its own visual and symbolic language.

In 1951, he moved to New York.

“New York was exactly as it appeared in MGM musicals,” he said. said to another man magazine in 2019. “It was quick, and it was more exciting than your second orgasm.”

He put his dexterity in costume making to use at Club 82, where he also performed as Terry Howe. He studied at the Parsons School of Design from 1957 to 1960, then earned his living as a window dresser and costume designer. Clients would hire him to design their outfits for company balls, and once he started taking photos, he would sometimes recycle those dresses to create the scenes for the photos he took in his apartment.

For his first series of homoerotic photographs, “Water Colors”, he created the ocean by spreading silver lamé on the floor of his apartment and made a cave out of waxed paper. For the mid-1960s “Willow Tree,” in which a naked man reclines in a bed of flowers, he evoked the prairie from colorful pieces of a dress he had made for a client the door to a Junior League ball.

Mr. Bidgood, who Mr. Clamp said had lived in the same apartment on West 14th Street in Manhattan since 1974, is survived by one brother, Richard.

Mr Bidgood’s executor Kelly McKaig said Mr Bidgood picked up his camera in the 2000s and learned Photoshop, digital audio editing and other skills; he even created a three-hour autobiographical audio piece, “FAG – the Pretty Good Life of Jimmy Bundle”. But he was reclusive in his later years, rarely leaving his apartment, and he struggled financially. A GoFundMe page sought to fund a funeral and the creation of an archive of his work.

Mr Bidgood’s photographs were often labeled “camp”, a term whose definition has varied over the decades in the gay world and beyond. In 2019, Mr Bidgood was among half a dozen artists, performers and others identified with the term who took part in a discussion for The Times about what exactly it means.

“Shouldn’t camp at least make you laugh?” He asked. “Camp, to me, is like a wife going to her husband’s funeral wearing an orange Day-Glo dress and a big feather boa on her head.”