March 28, 1933 – James Bidgood:
It’s like you’re trying to come into my dream world and see what I see only at night by myself.
Like so many other originals who create art ahead of their time, Bidgood was in danger of being forgotten in favor the next generation of quintessentially queer artists that he had inspired, especially the dazzling duo Pierre et Gilles (Pierre Commoy and Gilles Blanchard), and the immensely successful gay commercial photographer David LaChapelle.
Born in Madison, Wisconsin, Bidgood moved to New York City, attended Parsons School for Design. and worked as a window dresser where he would borrow fabric and props to use for his own photo shoots in his tiny Hell’s Kitchen apartment.
Highly recognizable, his photographs are part of our aesthetic of fantasy and high camp. His work was inspired by an early interest in the over-the top work of Florenz Ziegfeld, the Folies Bergère, and George Quaintance, the American artist famous for his idealized depictions of men in mid-20th-century physique magazines.
At 17-years old, Bidgood was making ends meet by working as a dresser on Broadway and then as a drag queen at Club 82, the glam rock venue. After having studied at Parsons he started publishing his photos in underground papers and gay magazines, giving him some visibility and money to eat.
He met Bobby Kendall, a sublime young man originally from Brazil, who became his muse and the star of his film, which he made entirely using Super 8. Inspired by the work of Michael Powell, who directed the dream-like dance world drama The Red Shoes (1948), he shut himself away in his apartment in Hell’s Kitchen to devote himself to the project of his life, his ultimate work Pink Narcissus.
Pink Narcissus is the story of a beautiful young hustler who recreates an imaginary inner world within his apartment where he enacts fantasies through the sheer force of his imagination. Bidgood took on every role: director, cinematographer, editor, set decorator, costume designer, make-up artist, and craft services. The motivating force behind this crazy undertaking was a desire to appropriate the glamourous showbiz aesthetic of the past and apply it to men, while featuring mythological references.
He made all the sets from scratch and lived with his lover surrounded by these extraordinary constructions in paper and sequins. It is a seemingly, feigned naïve film that in reality is charged with symbolism and a political statement at a time when sexual liberation was just beginning.
One astonishing scene features a hand-made skyline of buildings set in glowing signage that tower over pantless sailors, bag ladies, men clad in BD/SM harnesses, a nurse in a storefront dancing with intestines, a cowboy with his cock out and a postman with his penis in his hand, shot in Bidgood’s tiny kitchenette.
Like the French early filmmaker Georges Méliès, Bidgood constructed enchantments from very humble tools. In the spirit of the Ziegfeld Follies, he celebrated lavish, luxurious eroticism, but without any money and without any girls.
In the early-1960s, his gay-themed art was destined for outsider status. His first erotic series was an underwater epic called Water Colors, made in the early-1960s, in which he used a dancer from Club 82 named Jay Garvin as his subject. The underwater atmosphere is completely fabricated; the bottom of the ocean was created with silver lame spread across the floor of Bidgood’s apartment; he made the arch of a cave out of wadded up waxed paper, and fashioned red lame into a lobster. He coated Garvin with mineral oil and pasted glitter and sequins to his skin so the silver fabric under photographic lights would reflect on his body like water. For weeks at a time, Bidgood would eat and sleep within the sets he constructed in his apartment.
When asked how he went creating the forest scene in his apartment, Bidgood replied:
Every breath of space was used. So that moon was a tabletop that was in one room, and the sky in the background was a huge frame that was as big as it could be and still pass through the archway that led into the living room where it started. If you have that kind of conviction and want to do that and if you really think you know how to do it, you should do it! And you shouldn’t let anyone tell you that you should ‘start a little simpler’.
For nearly a decade in that cramped apartment, Bidgood filmed his wordless gay fantasy of the hustler’s daydreams, Pink Narcissus, which was yanked away from him by his investors, who edited, and released it without his consent in 1971. He removed his name from the credits. As a sort of revenge Bidgood insisted the credits read ”Directed by: Anonymous”, hoping this mystery would intrigue the public and future financing prospects. Unfortunately, the film was attributed to Andy Warhol or Kenneth Anger, who shared Bidgood’s love for pop visuals in Technicolor. it was finally re-released with his director credit in 2003.
In the 21st century, Bidgood’s career has had a turnaround with solo or group shows in the USA and Europe. In 2013, his work was the final image in Musée d’Orsay‘s fabulous show Masculin / Masculin. You can still buy one of his prints for $2000-$5000. To compare, a 1976 Pierre et Gilles print from 1976 sold at Christie’s for $224,000 in 2011.
In an interview for Butt Magazine he said:
… because of all that sissy scenery in that ‘Narcissus’ thing, I guess people expect me to be lounging around in a silk caftan, face powdered and rouged with twenty yards of orchid chiffon draped around my neck with my bong and a few boys by my pool! Very often guests think I only work in this slum dwelling, but I live here!
Released around the same time as Pink Narcissus, the erotic thriller Boys In The Sand, directed by acclaimed Broadway dancer and director Wakefield Poole, opened at the 55th Street Playhouse in New York City. Starring porn superstar Casey Donovan in three sexual vignettes, the film made Fire Island an international tourist destination and introduced gay sex positivity to straight audiences. Poole, a master of the genre, had a big success and eclipsed Bidgood, who was already considered old school. Bidgood never got over it and led a precarious life of obscurity in New York City for the next 40 years.
In 2014, destitute and ignored, he launched a crowdfunding campaign to finance the purchasing of a new camera and help produce new projects. He was 81-years-old. Today he turns 86 and he is still working.
For more, get the yummy Taschen’s big book James Bidgood (1999). Taschen also includes an interview with Bidgood in their The Big Penis Book (2009).