In the early 1960s, just a few years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that nudity in art was not obscene, one artist’s career began with a literal splash.
Young James Bidgood, then in his early 30s, working as a drag queen and a physique photographer and living in a small midtown Manhattan apartment, created an erotic photo illustration series and titled it, “Water Colors.” His muse was a young dancer who worked at New York’s famed Club 82, a longtime hangout for local gays and drag queens. The dancer and hustler, Jay Garvin, found himself adorned with sequins and glitter, posed above a silver lame spread. The sparkling effect generated by this combination gave the illusion of a beautiful young man underwater.
It was a fantasy world created in Bidgood’s mind and brought to life within the tight confines of his small apartment. And it would only be the first of many erotic images brought to life over a career that would span more than 40 years.
Bidgood incorporated themes of masculinity, eroticism, camp, and desire, among others, into his still images and films over the years.
But one of his most well-known projects was his initial foray into the medium of film, and it didn’t come until years after he began working in physique photography. “Pink Narcissus” was quietly released in 1971, and quickly forgotten about. Only in recent years has it bloomed into an underground gay camp celluloid romp.
It reportedly took Bidgood seven years to make the film, about a handsome male prostitute (played by Bobby Kendall) who lounges around his apartment in the nude and daydreams about life as a matador, a Roman slave, an emperor. Though short on plot, Bidgood’s shots of Kendall’s best asset, his – well, ass – are plentiful.
Like other artists, Bidgood wasn’t just the director of his film – he was the casting director, the set designer, the cinematographer, the costume designer. And yet, he felt a sense of despair when, in 1970, editors urged Bidgood to wrap up the film’s production (he had been working on it since 1963) and release it. Bidgood, feeling as if his process had been too rushed, took his name off of the movie completely and simply attributed the movie to “Anonymous” (in the 2003 re-release of “Pink Narcissus,” Bidgood’s name does appear, however).
For years, filmmakers, artists and audiences mistakenly believed that “Pink Narcissus” was the brainchild of pop artist Andy Warhol or Kenneth Anger. Bidgood would seemingly rather have it that way.
“It’s like I survived a train wreck and everybody else died and my name is associated with that disaster,” he lamented in a 2011 interview with The New York Times. “I can’t look at it.”
Still, “Pink Narcissus” continues to be screened at both art galleries and college campuses, and, at age 84, Bidgood continues to stay busy with his still photography, photographing boys in dreamlike settings, as mythical, cherub-faced characters and with the same color, camp and kitsch as Pierre et Gilles and David LaChapelle, who count Bidgood himself among their artistic influences.
Taschen's big book on Bidgood's works was published in 2009, right in time for the publisher's 25th anniversary. You can buy it here.