Photos by Michael Marcelle
James Bidgood's photos are highly saturated fantasies where half-naked boys lean sensually beneath glittery skies. It's as if David LaChapelle shot twink porn, but where LaChapelle's work looks hyperkinetic and hard, Bidgood's photos seem hypnagogic and gauzy—ecstasy to LaChapelle's coke.
People often cite Bidgood's work as a precursor to LaChapelle's and other artists like French duo Pierre et Gille, but despite his reputation amongst artists, Bidgood has mostly existed outside of popular recognition for the past 40 years. His most famous work, 1971's erotic arthouse artifact Pink Narcissus, was originally credited to "Anonymous," and fans often mistake the film for the product of more well known queer film pioneers like Andy Warhol or Kenneth Anger. His work was really fucking gay long before marriage equality was hip, and the price he paid was to be forgotten for a long time.
Before Bidgood, gay erotic photos tended to fall into two camps: soft-core physique pictorials (for bros who liked to look at other bros wearing briefs), or low-rent, hardcore pornos. Instead of producing photos with production values as shoddy as your average dick pic, Bidgood crafted entire worlds for his models to inhabit. Using cheap paper materials and sequins he birthed glittery dreamscapes in his tiny Manhattan apartment.
His work is painstaking in the truest sense of the word. An uncompromising artistic vision motivates him, and he obsessively worries about his own inadequacy. Pink Narcissus took seven years to finish, but you can't keep a good gay down. Now in his 80s, Bidgood has launched an IndieGoGo campaign to buy a new camera and start publicly producing art once again. With only a few days left, he still has a lot of money to raise, so if you cared enough to read this far, you should probably go donate.
Right before Christmas, I sat down with Bidgood in the same small apartment where he created so many of his photos, to discuss fame, shame, and what he plans next.
VICE: It seems like you're finally getting a tiny taste of the recognition you deserve. How does that feel?
James Bidgood: Right now, I'm suffering Susan Boyle syndrome—which is I've been this piece of shit on the fourth floor and nobody cared for a long time—and now suddenly I go on Facebook and read these things. It's like I could walk on water.
And it's very hard to live like this and to look at my life and how poor I am. It's not easy. It cuts me, and I read on there who I am and what I am, and they talk about the people that borrowed from me and they're all living high off the hog, and it doesn't make sense to me. How I can be all that?
You realize you're a huge influence though, right?
You have to understand: I can't understand it. I did some nice things, but a lot of people do a lot nicer things.
I did do something different, and I will say that. When you're looking at photographs, if one of mine is there you know it's mine. You know a Diane Arbus when you see a Diane Arbus, and that I'm in that league makes me happy, because you know if it's a Bidgood and that's a flattering thing—it means I discovered a way to do something that set me apart.
You have a reputation for being uncompromising when it comes to your work. Why?
The reason I try so hard is because I think I'm so bad. If you don't think you're very good, or that you don't know shit from Shinola about art, then you figure, "I've got to try much harder and do better. I can't just blow a fart through some tissue and call it art!" I'm not good enough to do that, so I have to make sure everything is just as good as I can possibly get it, and that means I hardly ever get it done—I took seven years to make a movie.
And nobody likes that, you know? I've worked for photographers, and they wanted to go home and fuck their wives at five o'clock and I was still going. It was always just a job to everybody, and nothing's ever just a job to me. And that's a curse, because—well, you can imagine. Everyone hates you. Oh yeah, they can't stand you. It's like a goody two-shoes or something, but that's not what it's about. Even if it's a fucking catalog shot, couldn't it just be a little nicer so somebody might enjoy it more? Or so it might sell the product more? I don't know. I don't even know that anybody sees that stuff when they look at a package insert. I have no idea. And I don't care. It has to do with what I think of myself when I go home at night.
What are you going to create with the new camera from your IndieGoGo campaign?
A new series about real love affairs of gay people. They're fairy tales drawn from real life, starting with two men who are very much in love. In my version of their story, a king is on safari in his jungle country, and he comes upon this one part that's sparkling and glowing. In the crotch of a tree is the reason for all of this dazzle and it's this creature whom he falls in love with.
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