An artist of singular vision and uncompromising integrity, James Bidgood charted his own path, living as an openly gay man at a time when it was illegal to do so. Whether working as a female impersonator, window dresser, fashion, costume, and graphic designer, photographer, photo stylist, or filmmaker, Bidgood brought a love of glamour, fantasy, and spectacle to every aspect of his life.
“It is hard to understate Jim’s legacy!” says Brian P. Clamp, Bidgood’s gallerist. “He was such a creative inspiration to experimental filmmakers and photographers of many generations. He represents an integral part of queer history. Drag queens in the 1950s did not get pension funds. Jim and gay people of his generation had to figure out how to forge a life for themselves in a society that did not recognize them or care to see them at all.”
Prefiguring the work of Pierre et Gilles, David LaChapelle, and Steven Arnold, James Bidgood celebrated homosexuality in every aspect of his art. His vivid palette of rainbow colors, use of extravagant costumes, sets, and props belied that humble space in which the work was made. It was a skill he mastered growing up in Madison, Wisconsin during the Depression. Although the family was poor, Bidgood’s mother graciously gave her son a precious gift: a set of paper dolls for which he begged. Inspired by the opulent theatricality of Busby Berkeley musicals, Bidgood transformed an old cereal box into a Techincolor set for his paper dolls. It was a revelation of things to come.
A Star is Born
In 1951, James Bidgood, then 18, hopped on a Greyhound bus and made his way east to the city of his childhood dreams. “I first set foot on a New York sidewalk nearly 70 years ago. I was home at last,” he said in 2019.
Dreaming of the Broadway stage, Bidgood found a parallel world further downtown at Club 82, an East Village drag club frequented by Hollywood icons Elizabeth Taylor, Judy Garland, and Zsa Zsa Gabor. Although it was illegal for men and women to cross dress outside of Halloween, Bidgood was unapologetic and unafraid. He appeared as Teri Howe and played the room like it was the Ziegfeld Theater and he was a Follies girl.
“That part was always so glamorous,” Bidgood recalled. “Performing, singing for your supper and hearing that applause. Every time I stepped into the shine of that spotlight, I was a Broadway star inside my head. Of course I was 18, I didn’t need a lot of convincing.”
In the late 1950s, James Bidgood began designing costumes for society balls, a skill that would serve him well in his own photographic work published in Muscleboy, Adonis, and The Young Physique magazines in the 1960s. At the time, trafficking images of male frontal nudity was illegal so many skirted the law by producing homoerotic “physique photography” for fitness magazines.
But he had no interest in beefcake; instead he brought romance, mystery, and opulence to his work, fusing glamour and pulp aesthetics in a kaleidoscopic tapestry of homoerotic bliss. Drawing inspiration from MGM and Twentieth Century Fox Technicolor musicals, and painters George Quaintance, Maxfield Parrish, Bidgood transformed his modest Manhattan apartment into his photo studio, where he produced his first shoot: a man swimming in a glittering undersea cave.
While Bidgood aspired to photograph his models the same way Playboy photographed women, he knew film could be confiscated by Kodak if it revealed too much, so he took great care to drape bits of fabric as need be. It was a lesson learned in an unlikely albeit appropriate place. “I had seen a straight sex loop at one of those 42nd Street porno theaters and the girl involved covered the man’s erect penis with a fine silk scarf and then proceeded to fellate him,” said Bidgood, who felt affirmed in the belief that imagination is more sexy than reality.
The Price of Integrity
After the Stonewall Uprising, the culture began to shift. Male frontal nudity was decriminalized, and eventually so was homosexuality. At the dawn of this new era, James Bidgood’s masterpiece, Pink Narcissus, was released. Showcasing the allegorical fantasies of a gay prostitute, Bidgood cast local hustlers in the film, which he shot in his apartment between 1963 and 1970. From the sets to costumes, Bidgood did it all – but when the film was released in 1971, he did not reap the rewards for his work. After having creative differences with the producer, Bidgood removed his name from the project, which went on to quickly become an underground sensation.
In the 1990s writer Bruce Benderson located James Bidgood, who had been working in obscurity for decades, and helped him produce his first complete monograph, Bidgood. The book’s publication helped restore Bidgood’s contributions to art history. In 2019, Lissa Rivera curated his first career retrospective, James Bidgood: Reveries, at the Museum of Sex, and selections from his archive are now on view in CAMP@CLAMP.
Although Bidgood finally received his due late in his life, it was bittersweet. “Jim always felt excluded by much of the outside world. Recognition certainly came a day late and a dollar short,” Brian P. Clamp says. Despite Bidgood’s contributions and influence, he was impoverished and did not have the money to ensure that not only would his art be properly cared for, but that he could be buried. A GoFundMe campaign has been established to help cover these costs.
In staying true to his vision, James Bidgood sacrificed wealth, fame, and security — but earned his place in the pantheon of queer art. “Being creative is not about praise or gratitude — it is only about the act of creating. It requires a kind of vulnerability and the ability to expose your need no matter what,” he said. “I have always questioned whether I am a real artist. I do meet the demands to be called genius because to qualify you only need to have done something very different and for the first time that affects the lives of many… Hell, my Aunt Hazel did that!”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books and magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.
CAMP@CLAMPis on view at ClampArt in New York through February 26, 2022.