When male physique photographer and COLT Studio founder Jim French died in his sleep on Thursday evening, he left behind a mammoth body of work that shaped the adult film industry for decades to come.
Described by LGBT historians as “the most successful physique photography company since Bob Mizer’s Athletic Model Guild,” the studio will celebrate its 50th anniversary this year without its founder, a man who gave rise to the gay porn empire under the pseudonym ‘Rip Colt’ shortly after the Summer of Love in 1967.
“Jim French’s contributions to the gay porn industry, to the art world, to generations of gay men, are immeasurable and too numerous to count,” says Dennis Bell, president and CEO of the Bob Mizer Foundation. “We at the Foundation are forever indebted to Jim for paving the way for other photographers, and today we pay tribute to the life of a brilliant artist who will live on in his work, which celebrates male beauty and masculinity throughout decades of changing social mores and trends.”
French was born on July 14, 1932, and from a young age, it was obvious he possessed a keen eye for the aesthetic. He dabbled in both drawing and photography as a youth, and at age 18 was accepted to the Philadelphia Museum School of Art. Like other male physique photographers of his era, French enlisted in the U.S. Army in his early 20s and was honorably discharged in 1957.
Moving to New York in the late 1950s, French used his visual gift to find work as a fashion illustrator. In mid-1966, he teamed up with a former Army buddy to launch the mail order company Luger, named after the German Luger pistol (French himself worked under the pseudonym ‘Kurt Luger’).
“This was, of course, during the era of the Lavender Scare, when the U.S. Postal Service worked with law enforcement to seize any materials they deemed obscene,” Bell notes. “Like Bob Mizer, who always had to fly under the radar of the authorities, Jim French and his business partner knew they were taking a great risk in not just taking these photos of young muscular men, but in disseminating them through the mail, too.”
COLT became a major player in the Golden Age of gay porn, and whereas French spent the first half of his career carefully drawing playful but tastefully covered symbols of masculinity, now his macho men were finally able to flaunt their perfect, god-like bodies.
French’s earliest drawings, done under the pseudonym of “Arion,” depicted erotic romps through Fire Island and similar scenes. His Luger drawings were more reminiscent of macho, masculine figures one might find in the works of Mizer and fellow illustrator George Quaintance – cowboys, bikers, Centurions, just to name a few. French was careful not to depict nudity in his Luger images, keeping in line with obscenity laws of the late 1950s and early ‘60s, but they included the same eroticism, camp and playful tone that one would find in Mizer’s own photos and films.
Selling off his shares of Luger to his partner in early 1967, French paired with another friend, Lou Thomas, to establish COLT Studio in early December of that same year. Like Luger, the company’s name referenced a firearm (though the logo changed to include a stallion in later years), and, like Luger, French offered drawings and photos to clients via mail order.
Only a few years after the founding of COLT, French decided to make a permanent move to California, where would-be models were more plentiful. COLT’s operations moved from New York to the San Fernando Valley.
At that time, COLT flourished and became the face of a specific moment in gay history – one that was sandwiched tightly between Stonewall and the AIDS crisis. COLT became a major player in the Golden Age of gay porn, and whereas French spent the first half of his career carefully drawing playful but tastefully covered symbols of masculinity, now his macho men were finally able to flaunt their perfect, god-like bodies.
French – known as a perfectionist to many in the gay porn industry – continued his drawings, even sketching mainstream celebrities such as Barbra Streisand, and even used the technology of the Polaroid camera (new to consumers in the late ‘60s). A 2013 exhibit at ClampArt in New York, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor: Polaroids,” hailed French’s work with Polaroid as, “classically inspired … sexy, shocking, sometimes campy, but invariably beautiful.”
As COLT grew, it became renowned not only for its striking photos and veritable harem of models, but also for the popular magazines published under the COLT name, including Manpower, COLT Men, Spurs, and COLT Studio Presents.
French remained at the helm of COLT Studio until 2003, when he sold the company. It continues to operate, albeit now with a shifted focus to hardcore gay porn films. French’s erotic works in the years since have traveled to art galleries the world over, hailed as iconic, groundbreaking, and singularly influential.
One Huffington Post writer in 2016 observed that, in the Internet age, anyone can become an instant star and enjoy his proverbial 15 minutes of fame, rendering gay models and porn stars completely accessible to audiences.
“But French’s models embody a sense of mystery – they are untouchable, and they are only brought to life by French’s lens,” Bell says. “These guys are the last vestiges of a time in which a muscle god populated our fantasies, and not the real world.”
Author, editor, and longtime Mizer Foundation supporter Bob Mainardi interviewed French for the 2015 coffee table book “The Jim French Diaries,” and French opined on the changing face of masculinity and gay culture.
“I have no doubt that ten or twenty years from now, a lot of my work will seem dated … because the gay subculture isn’t so ‘sub’ anymore, and the stereotypes of masculinity are pretty much gone,” French predicted. “There’s always going to be a sexy sailor. That’s not going to change. But I think the perception of masculinity now doesn’t require stereotypes anymore. I think you can find masculinity in lots of ways.”