James Bidgood, Erotic Photographer and Director of 'Pink Narcissus,' Dies at 88

Saturday February 5, 2022
Originally published on February 5, 2022

James Bidgood, the erotic gay photographer who directed the cult 1971 classic "Pink Narcissus," died in Manhattan on January 31, The New York Times reported. He was 88.

"Brian Paul Clamp, director of his gallery,†ClampArt, said his death, in a hospital, was caused by complications related to COVID-19," the New York Times reported.

Bidgood, a Wisconsin native, came to New York at the age of 18. He was a drag performer in the 1950s at Club 82 in the East Village, where he also sometimes designed sets and costumes. By the early 1960s he was taking photographs for men's physique magazines like Muscleboy.

Finding these gay erotic photos subpar, Bidgood decided to shake things up. "He staged photographs, mostly in his Manhattan apartment, that were lavish fantasies full of references to mythology, adventurous lighting and props, and attractive men — sometimes in costume, sometimes in nothing. The pictures, some of which ended up on the magazines' covers, were both erotic and amusingly campy," writes the Times.

"Enchanted scenes of languorous godlike figures in ersatz splendor are rendered with such theatricality of gesture, mood, color, texture and fabric as to parody the very desire they are designed to elicit," Philip Gefter wrote of Mr. Bidgood's work in the photography magazine Aperture in 2008.

Beginning in 1963, Bidgood began shooting the film that would become "Pink Narcissus," which tells the story of a gay hustler's fantasy. When it was released in 1971, there was no director's name attached, though, as the New York Times writes: "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-core urinals) were in his apartment."

The film was dismissed. The Times critic, Vincent Canby called it "a passive, tackily decorated surreal fantasy out of that pre-Gay-Activist era when homosexuals hid in closets and read novels about sensitive young men who committed suicide because they could not go on." For his part, Bidgood had his name removed from the released print after differences with the producers, who re-edited the film without his permission.

But over the years, the film gained notoriety and became a LGBTQ film festival favorite in the 1990s. In 1999 it was revealed that Bidgood had directed the film, which led to interest in his erotic photography and shows in galleries in New York City and Provincetown. In reviewing the New York exhibit, the Times critic Ken Johnson called Mr. Bidgood "a brave pioneer at a time when art photography was overwhelmingly straight (formally as well as sexually) and the idea that pornography could contribute to artistically serious projects was almost unthinkable."

Mr. Bidgood, who Mr. Clamp said had lived in the same apartment on West 14th Street in Manhattan since 1974, is survived by a brother, Richard. He returned to photography in the early 2000, but suffered financially in his later years and rarely left his apartment. A GoFundMe page is seeking to finance a funeral and creation of an archive of his work.

On the GoFundMe page Mr. Bidgood's executor, Kelly McKaig,†writes: "As an artist, Jim's dreamy, candy-colored world of beautiful boys — so far from the hard-muscled, butch fantasies of Tom of Finland — was a revelation. While much of his work, like his landmark film Pink Narcissus, was created over 50 years ago, Jim remains an inspiration. Jim's influence can be seen in the work of photographers like David La Chapelle and Pierre & Gilles. †Charli XCX exclaimed how she's 'really obsessed...with James Bidgood.' Olly Alexander called out Pink Narcissus as 'amazing. I was so heavily influenced by that video.' And more than a few have cited Jim's influence on Lil Nas X's amazing videos."

"Mr. Bidgood's photographs were often labeled 'camp,' a term whose definition has varied somewhat over the decades within the gay world and beyond," the Times article noted.

"In 2019 Mr. Bidgood was among a half-dozen artists, performers and others identified with the term who†participated in a discussion†for The Times about just what it means."

When asked by the Times to define "camp," Mr. Bidgood said: "Doesn't camp have to make you giggle at least?" he asked. "Camp, to me, is like a wife going to her husband's funeral wearing a Day-Glo orange dress and a big feather boa on her head."