I don’t remember where or when it was that I had personally first been made aware of Pink Narcissus, the masterpiece of gay erotica that was originally released under “Anonymous”, as the writer and director. The brilliant mind behind this work of art (and o, it is art) is painter and stage costume designer James Bidgood. In the 1950s, Bidgood began working with photography, and by the early 1960s he had already created a distinct and highly recognisable style that caught the attention of financiers for an “art film”. In 1963, filming began on Pink Narcissus, and was abruptly ended in 1970, when the financiers, feeling Bidgood was taking too long to finish, took the completed footage, sent it to an editor, and Bidgood, in possibly his most regretted decision, demanded his name be removed from the film on account of the fact that it didn’t yet match his vision for what it should have been.
Released in 1971, Pink Narcissus became a cult classic in art-house cinemas and gay theatres, the genius behind it somehow a mystery in spite of the highly recognisable style that carries almost every characteristic of Bidgood’s erotic photography. The sets are highly stylised fantasy — the bars of a cage are represented with strings of sequins sewn together, butterflies are crafted from wires and stockings and feathers, the trees and vines in The Wizard of Oz looked far more realistic, bright pink lighting washes nearly every surface — and many surfaces are sprinkled with glitter; hell, many of the same models he was fond of were also used in the film. How it took over thirty years for James Bidgood to finally be connected with Pink Narcissus is something I can only chalk up to that anachronistic shame associated with collecting old magazines like Young Physique.
It has been said by fans of Pink Narcussus of James Bidgood: “If only he’d put aside a little ego, or had a bit of luck, he could have been as famous as Andy Warhol.” Almost irnoic, as for years it was rumoured that Andy Warhol was actually the anonymous director of Pink Narcussis (a rumour that Warhol himself repeatedly denied). Indeed, luck is something Bidgood has needed for quite some time — he still lives in the tiny Manhattan studio where he filmed all but the “street scene” in Pink Narcissus (that scene was filmed at a friend’s loft), he merely “gets by” with his continued design work — he is poor and some of his teeth have gone bad — though, it is said, he and the star of his “μεγάλο έργο” (or “magnum opus”, if Latin is easier for you), Bobby Kendall, are still friends.
In the year 2000, James Bidgood was offered a deal with Taschen publishing and gay writer Bruce Benderson to release a monograph of Bidgood’s photographic work. A re-print was recently released, which I now own a copy of. One of the most striking things about Bidgood’s photography, after the elaborate sets that almost seem made for a Baroque stage, is the way he can create these breathtaking scenes yet they’re set in such a way as to bring your attention to the model and little else. Where photographers who specialise in nude women can benefit from harsh lighting to “wash out” certain aesthetic undesirables like the fine down on the jawline or belly or stretchmarks around the hips, photographers who specialise in male nudes benefit from shadow to bring out the fine definitions of muscle that too much light would wash out, making the model appear either chubby or frail. Though Bidgood’s published photographs have only rare instances of total nudity (and only one or two instances of full frontal, not counting stills from Pink Narcissus), the models tend to be clothed more often in skin-tight jeans and nothing on top, so the same rules would apply to bring out every line on the abdomen, every swooping shallow crevice of arm musculature. In the set entitled “Sandcastle”, one envisions Bobby Kendall and Jay Garvin as Eros and Himeros frolicking under the shadow of Nyx as lights flicker out, lapping at those perfect lines of legs, arms, backs, buttocks from between glittery branches.
Browsing through these photographs, I’m reminded of the leaner takes of the Hellenic ideal of antiquity. The thick trunks that athletes strode across Olympic fields on are now leaner, but just as well-muscled. Torsos that were much broader at the shoulders then seem much slimmer but just as tight.
The photography of James Bidgood seems divinely inspired at points. As if Eros and Apollon themselves, Theoi of the youthful ideal, whispered the directions for placement and lighting straight into Bidgood’s brain, emblazoned it into his psyche, and let the rest fall into place, as They knew it would. Even Bidgood’s proto-psychedelic interpretation of the Narkissos mythos plays out as if Bidgood had memorised every version of the tale, only to take what he wanted from a handful of fragmented retellings and let Erato guide the rest. Created at a time of homosexual repression and suppression, Pink Narcissus serves not as a cautionary tale against spurning suitors to the point of angering the Theoi, but instead a delicious celebration of the young male physique.