It is our pleasure to sit down and speak with photographer James Bidgood this month. A master of portrait photography, James’ artistic output has embraced a number of media and disciplines: including music, set and window design, and drag performance. In time, his interests led him to photography and film and it is for this work that he is most widely known. Highly recognizable, his photographs are distinguished by an aesthetic of high fantasy and camp and have influenced many contemporary artists including Pierre et Gilles and David LaChapelle.
Thank you so much for speaking with me, Mr. Bidgood! Your work has always been so inspiring to me.
To begin, I am really curious about what has inspired or continues to inspire the photographs that you make?
I can see so many potential influences: from mythological stories such as Narcissus, to archetypes of youth and beauty, to references of New York City in the Times Square settings.
When I set out…I mostly just wanted to upgrade erotic photos of the male figure because unlike classical paintings of male nudes or even the photographs of the very beautiful women in magazines such as Playboy… which were done very legitimately… with great lighting and elaborate sets and expensive costumes.. whether they were only partially in them or not. …they were very carefully styled…..while male physique photos were mostly done with the same level of artistry as Hustler Magazine which were only obscene and made no pretense at appearing otherwise. I wanted to glorify the american male the same as Ziegfeld glorified the american girl…and in much the same fashion.
So that was my mission and I decided I would begin with a boy swimming underwater and consciously or not…. similar to the Quaintance painting Coral Reef…combining that image with several Esther Williams films and who knows what else. It was a totally outrageous idea and I was met with many a smirk from all the old hands at this sort of imagery when I approached them for advice. Did I mention that I had no schooling in photography …had never taken a photo other than Kodak or polaroid snap shots like every one had done…did not even own a camera…professional or otherwise ….. had no other photographic equipment…and I was going to do images of a nude merman swimming underwater in MGM type sets… and in my living room.
But thats my edge and thats my downfall..There is very little I think that is impossible to do…there always has be a way… somehow…you only have to find it. And so I did.
In the 1940’s I saw a Paul Muni war film… in which the character he played… always carried a dictionary with him..and he had crossed out the word “impossible”: because he did not believe there was such a thing. And of course by the end of the film by not accepting that it was impossible to get heavy tanks across a wide deep river with no bridge…he and his platoon were able to wipe out a regiment of Germans soldiers camped somewhere on the other side.
Without being all that aware of it… I was evidently very impressed by that credo…and ultimately… lets face it …if no one thought this way …we would not be able to fly like birds…an impossibility even Leonardo De Vinci would not accept and dreamed of making a possibility…..nor would we be able to talk over a wire or be able to send live pictures through cyberspace or soon be heading to Mars ….although considering what a mess mankind has made of this planet ….thats maybe not such a good idea. Think of all the impossible things the Lumiere brothers …made possible.
My more practical friends always caution me… as they did back when I began… that perhaps….I should think smaller. But they will never invent a telephone or television or an airship that will take them to Mars or Watts tower and there would be no presidents faces carved into Mount Rushmore . And if …I thought the way most people I am acquainted with think…we would more than likely never have met. I am not criticizing their being sensible but if every one were sensible we would still be living in caves. Someone has to have the courage to say…we could do better than this and be dumb or crazy enough to make it happen. One caution….most of those who dare to explore very often can not pay their rent.
Have there been any artists or writers you feel who have been particularly influential in your development as an artist?
My mother had a print of a Maxfield Parrish ..which more than likely came with the very elaborate gray silver frame with an oval cut into the plump ruched lavender satin matte. That was the only art that existed in our living quarters and as the Jeffersons moved up town so to speak …it moved with us and remained the only art my parents had and always was hung over their bed.The painting and the frame both fascinated me…both seemed impossibly beautiful…so unlike my real world.
I was very influenced by spectacular Hollywood musicals …what sissy wouldn’t have been. But I have always been curious about choices …why did my older brother not share my interest in Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth and MGM and Judy Garland. Why did I want to play with my Ziegfeld Girl paper dolls while he built paper airplanes and drew pictures of deer posed in a woods..deer that he hoped to hunt one day. I never liked my brother ….he was so serious and contrary…but I think Disney’s film Bambi is what finalized my opinion of him. I hated the hunters that killed Bambi’s mother….my brother hated the film because he thought it was anti hunting propaganda. He played basketball while I danced around the front room in my Mother’s purple velvet robe singing “A tisket, a tasket, a green and yellow basket” He was sooooo straight and I was sooooo not.
And this just occurred to me…the status quo are always so concerned about gays influencing young people and turning them “gay!” Well who turned me gay? There were no iconic gays…no “GAYS” at all in my surround until long after my wrist was permanently broken. I don’t think most people even knew what fags did sexually at the time …it was more a matter of being sissified …and that you would become a window trimmer or a dress designer but the sex part …I do not think was any part of the equation …that called for imagining the unimaginable. There is a hospital scene reflecting this in the film “The Band Played On” about the aids crisis…and that was three or more decades later.
I am really interested in the process of how you create the beautiful sets and costumes in your photographs!
In this age of special effects in Hollywood films and digital animation movies where it’s almost impossible to tell what is real or fantasy anymore, I love how handmade the scenes for the photographs seem to be.
Well I am aware my sets etc look home made now but at the time they were …..especially for that particular kind of photograph…. quite spectacular ….and quite often convincing because they were unexpected. They also in many instances echoed the style of much that was popular then like gossamer walls. The more recent shots …and there are only two….that I did a few years ago are a tad more professional looking ….however when you create that sort of idyllic setting…the viewer is immediately suspicious.
Do you usually come up with a concept beforehand about the physical set for a photograph, or do you start to build and accumulate elements for the scene as you go along?
Or do you sometimes start with the costumes, and then create the sets to fit the clothes and wardrobe?
I have had a prop or fabric or something similar and then created an opportunity to use whatever it was….but I almost always…have an idea first… see an image in my mind…quite clearly…and then do a very rough sketch of what I see before it evaporates… then later …if I decide to go ahead with the idea….I do a better rendering. And while doing the rendering …I try to add depth to the idea…to enhance it…to add hidden symbols or references…whenever its appropriate. And of course a lot depends on whether I am inspired or observant enough to realize or suddenly see whatever is there to be discovered. It also depends on how serious I think the subject matter is. Most of these type images …although not all ….are still on the drawing board. However there are several scenes in my film that incorporate these hidden connections.
Similar to the last question, I am also so curious about how have you gone about selecting a male model for the scenes!
Do you usually select a model and then create a set for him, or do you have an idea beforehand of the general mood/atmosphere/emotion of the scene that you would like to create and then you let the model and set influence each other as you go along?
Well I didn’t so much… select …as I went with whatever body or pretty face was available. When I did most of my photography not everyone was all that willing to pose in the altogether. It’s very different now and if I were to go by observation alone….I would guess at least eighty per cent of the earths population today have appeared in at least one porno film. I for one never seem to see the same face or other particulars twice and I see a lot because I absolutely love porno. And…. I am not ashamed of my addiction what-so-ever. There is a line in the musical I wrote that reads …”Just because I fella can’t play football anymore …don’t mean he can’t enjoy a game on the television now and again.”
Robert Frashure: Thank you so much, James, for taking the time to speak with me! It will be a pleasure to share the second half of our interview together in the next article.