James Bidgood

Interview by
Michael Kowalinski
Photography by
Moss Roberts


It was a hot June morning in New York when after a long hike up an endless flight of stairs, I met the photographer and filmmaker James Bidgood. Famous for his ethereal photography of beautiful young men in the 1960s, James Bidgood directed, produced and wrote the iconic 1971 film Pink Narcissus, starring Bobby Kendall. Nearly all of the film was shot in Mr. Bidgood's Hell's Kitchen apartment between 1963 and 1971 where he lived within the sets he built. Before the film reached completion, it was taken from him by investors and edited without his involvement, creating something Bidgood says he couldn't even follow himself or stay awake through. Devastated after having spent the past seven years of his life making the film, he refused to sign his name to the project and for years it was credited to 'Anonymous', which led many to think that perhaps Andy Warhol was behind it. When I arrived at his apartment, Mr. Bidgood asked the first question.

James: What are we going to talk about? What do you know about me?
Michael: I read everything I could find about you.
Well, I haven’t! Whenever I Google myself – you should forgive any image that might conjure up – I find out something new about myself.
What are you working on now?
Well, a few years ago when the destinies were distracted for a moment, I very fortunately met Christian Louboutin. Christian is a genius – a truly brilliant designer of women’s shoes and an incredibly sweet man, unbelievably understanding. Anyway that’s what I’m working on, a couple of ideas for him.
Does he ask you to send him ideas?
Not about designing shoes. He just sends me a shoe and I create whatever surround I think that particular shoe inspires and take a photograph. And at least and at last, I don’t have to ‘make do’ as much.
Make do?
Well, I have a little more in the way of ‘chedda’ to work with now, wait, oh fuck that – EUROS! You know, when I first started taking pictures – those ‘underwater’ shots of Jay Garvin, I had to use whatever crepe paper or Junior League Mardi Gras Ball costume part was left over or something I might find in the trash, like pan scrapings. I’ve even used the paper dividers from peach boxes and egg crates. I knew how to make costumes because I went to Parsons. I was supposed to become a fancy schmancy fashion designer and obviously, I didn’t!
What happened?
I have the very worst luck. No really, no one believes me, until they’ve been around me for a while. I must have been one mean son-of-a-bitch in a past life ’cause I am sure as Hell paying for some kind of heavy transgressing this trip through. Or maybe God just pulled out the wrong file card when I happened. The other day, Oprah was all about believing in yourself and sticking to your dream and if you did, that dream would happen one day. Maybe to the lady next door but I’ve been stuck with my dreams for close to 80 years now, and I still have to worry whether I have the rent money every month.
I remember now, reading somewhere ‘If only he’d had a little luck, he could have been as famous as Andy Warhol. Luck is something Bidgood’s needed for quite some time.’
Exactly! Ya know – because of all that sissy scenery in that ‘Narcissus’ thing, I guess people expect me to be lounging around in a silk caftan, face powdered and rouged with twenty yards of orchid chiffon draped around my neck with my bong and a few boys by my pool! Very often guests like yourself think I only work in this slum dwelling, but I live here! There is so little room, I sleep on a twin mattress twice as old as you are, half of which is occupied by a six-foot plaster male store mannequin. I use it to build paper mache forms on and for draping costumes because a regular dressmaker form doesn’t work for the kind of costumes I make, if ya get my meanin’! There’s nowhere else left to put the damn thing, so I got a man in bed with me every night – where he’s of no use at all, like sleepin’ with a cold corpse!
Does he hog the bed?
Well, as popular as pigs are these days in ‘some’ circles, I wouldn’t wanna out him!
So, what do you think about photography becoming so extreme and shocking?
I don’t know. It seems like folks these days would rather look at a bloody car accident or a nauseating crime scene than a glorious sunset or a pretty English garden. Shock value used to be what the talentless with low budgets resorted to, like in terrible William Castle movies or those tabloids in grocery stores. You know ‘Oh darling what a lovely evening gown! It just cries out to be photographed on a homeless man buried under garbage in a yucky dumpster.’ But I’m not sure I understand anything about fashion anymore. You know, the piss stains in your Levi’s crotch, or how many rips, and how worn and faded, are now price points! The ‘in’ aesthetic seems to be looking as much like you’re wearin’ one of your mothers old size 18 dresses yanked up here an’ mooshed together there ta fit your size 8 figure, or like some dotted Swiss window sheers has been bunched up around you and hastily safety pinned in the least flattering place possible. And what faggot talked Anna the Wintour into wearing the music hall curtain to that Met Ball the other night? Ruched indeed! I expected ta see Rockettes hangin’ off the hem! Chanel must be spinnin’ a mile a minute in her grave! I don’t know why this change of subject popped into my head but did you see Sophia Loren at the Oscars? The tits were still up ta here, and there was no trace of any waddle under that chin. I said ta everyone that they must keep her in a vat of oil between outings! For years I heard she went around with the tapes that pulled it all back like a cheap lift. And hello – what about Raquel Welch? They both must have made some sort of deal with that Metha– Mefa – ya know, the devil?

BUTT - 2

Let’s talk about the models you worked with. They were beyond gorgeous.
Really – I didn’t always think so. Musta been all them coats of Mehron!
Where did you get your models? I read that you met Jay Garvin during your time at Club 82.
Jay Garvin was the ‘male’ dancer at the 82 Club during the sixties. Girly shows, including the Folies Bergere always seemed to have at least one scantily clad well built man/boy amidst a bevy of sequined and feathered, in this case, female impersonators. The show’s producer Kit Russell put me in touch with Jay and he was wonderful to work with. I would prepare for the shoot all day and he would arrive around five in the morning, after he’d finished work at the club and we would shoot sometimes until it came time for him to go back to the club that night. That’s how I met Bobby Kendall too. A friend of mine called saying they had come across this boy that I might be interested in photographing. Models were not that easy to find especially for the kind of work I was doing which called for more of the subject’s time than a pose or two wearing less than two square inches of jersey and some elastic and leaning against some fagelas elaborate mantelpiece. In the time I needed to do one shot they could turn ten tricks. And there weren’t all that many great beauties around willing to be photographed nude or semi nude in homoerotic situations. Remember this was before being gay and/or being a ‘male escort’ or pornography, quasi or otherwise, were as acceptable or mainstream as they are now.
I read that you lived with Bobby Kendall on and off during the making of your film. Can you tell me a little about that time and what it was like to live with the actor you were working with?
Well I am not really sure if Bobby lived with me or just slept over sometimes. I wrote a screenplay semi loosely based on my life. It’s called ‘FAG’ (The Pretty Good Life of Jimmy Bundle) Anyway you know you have to change some of your realities to fit the form to make the story happen and I’ve spent more time and lived longer in that altered version than in the real one. Now when I remember various people I’ve known and based characters on, my invention seems more real to me than the actual person. My fiction is mostly all I remember now. So whether Bobby lived with me or not or what it was like? I don’t really remember.
Were you or are you a dreamer? What do you dream about at night?
Unfortunately I’m addicted to dreaming. If you mean getting lost in fantasies, ideas, hearing tunes, seeing rhyme couplets, cuz I’m workin’ on a musical, the whole schmear, book, music, lyrics. I win all sorts of awards dreaming. I’ve won the Tony and wept uncontrollably giving my thank you speech at least a dozen times in my imagination, usually in the bathtub, in a warm bath. A warm bath is great place to dream. If you mean do I dream at night, I try not to because I am prone to having terrible nightmares and so I sleep with the television on.
What is your favorite color?
Well it was obviously pink in the 1960’s and now its purple. When I was a teenager it was red. Somehow I managed to talk my mother into my bed-room having a lamp with a red kimono clad geisha as its base with a silk-fringed pagoda shaped shade with tassels. She made a fitted red taffeta cover for my bed and of course, the matching drapes. The walls were some kind of woven bamboo or straw shit. Now remember this was in Madison, Wisconsin in the late 1940’s, so imagine having to explain to the relatives raised eyebrows that this was your boy Jimmy’s room. ‘Well, now ya know he’s very artistic!’
Were you always as generous as you are now? You’ve been very kind.
I didn’t know I was being all that generous! I just liked your questions—
James suggested the interview should end with a nurse entering —his meds in one hand and an enema bottle in the other saying something like ‘It’s time for Mr. Bidgood’s nap now!’ From what I observed any such encounter is still a very long way off. He is passionate and full of vitality—-funny and though he wouldn’t like me saying so, intensely charming.

Published on 22 June 2010