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Bruno Gm端nder


Jim French Diaries The Creator of

colt Studio

Edited by Robert Mainardi


Contents Foreword by Mark Henderson . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13 Houseboat . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 28 Beginnings . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 40 Art Background . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 60 The Business . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 88 Fire Island . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 114 Polaroids . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 122 California . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 128 Models I . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 142 Models II . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 164 Superstars . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 180 Ledermeister . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 194 Models III . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 216 On Location . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 256 Models IV . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 284 End Notes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 331 Acknowledgments . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 343 Afterword by Robert Mainardi . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 345 Key to Photos . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 348

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Foreword Masculine, heroic, monumental, powerful … these descriptions are bound to arise in discussing the work of artist and photographer Jim French. He created the universe populated by what is famously known as the “Colt Man”, a god-like symbol of a type of ideal manhood that has become an enduring part of the gay cultural ethos. But the story behind Jim French and the success of Colt Studio is larger than a legacy of images. Simply put, Jim French is the founder of modern male erotic photography, at once the field’s most cultured artisan and its most revolutionary practitioner; its most sensitive aesthete and yet its savviest entrepreneur. The opportunity to view in one volume the most spectacular and iconic images from Mr. French’s prodigious photographic output, along with numerous superb pictures perhaps less well known, will provide tremendous pleasure even to those who are already familiar with his work. And to have these glorious photographs accompanied by Mr. French’s own recollections and personal insights constitutes an exceedingly rare opportunity to learn not only about the artist himself but the fascinating era in which he created these enduring images. When Jim French established Colt Studio in the late 1960s, commercial gyms had not yet become commonplace and body consciousness remained well outside the cultural mainstream. At the time, only an elite group of men dedicated themselves to the sport of body sculpting as a serious pursuit. In this era, and for many years to come, photographing male athletes and competitive bodybuilders as objects of sexual desire remained a highly rarified taboo subject for any medium of art. But not for Jim French, who helped pioneer the depiction of the fully sexualized and aroused male nude as a serious subject for photography with both commercial and artistic implications. Of course, Jim French did not invent male erotic nude photography, but with Colt Studio, the genre transitioned into its

maturity; it blossomed from the somewhat campy but charming and relatively modest images of Bob Mizer and Bruce of Los Angeles to a level of refinement and artistry that influences photographers to this day. He ingeniously applied the sophisticated gloss of fashion editorial photography, with its attention to detail, texture, and mise-en-scène, to the experimental structure and composition of modern art photography. French created images with a highly distinctive visual and narrative impact that is unique to him. French’s pictorial gift … a visceral genius for manipulating light, texture, space, composition, and line ... unites dazzling surface beauty to formal and conceptual complexity. Throughout his work, the male form retains the primary focus, the central component of every picture, never obscured or lost behind a prop. It’s no wonder many of the best models in the business flocked to Colt Studio to be photographed. Whether costumed as cowboys, construction workers, mechanics, lifeguards, or tuxedoed sophisticates, French conferred upon his subjects a virile, masterful bearing in every photo, rendered with a type of sheen and glamour usually reserved for portraits of Hollywood celebrities. French accorded his models a certain star status, featuring them in numerous, luxuriously produced magazines and coffee table books, slides, calendars, prints, and films, all innovatively marketed through periodic mailings filled with irresistible full-color brochures advertising Colt Studio’s latest offerings. These mailings, known as “Colt Folios,” were always eagerly awaited at my home and have since become, like almost everything associated with Jim French, treasured collector’s items. Colt’s pantheon of luminaries included such early greats as Devlin, Gordon Grant, Bruno, and Ledermeister—who rose decisively to cult status among fans—and such later stars as Carl Hardwick, Steve Kelso, John Pruitt, and Jake Tanner among many others.

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Creating and publishing his own work, although certainly expensive and time-consuming, must have afforded French a tremendous amount of freedom. Owning the means of production meant (theoretically) never having to compromise or censor himself. But we must remember, French began his company at a time when U.S. state and local laws frowned upon (to put it mildly) the production, sale, and distribution of such material. For years he ran the risk of huge fines and incarceration at every turn. Yet he forged ahead courageously to create what is inarguably the most prestigious brand in the adult male industry and set the stage for other artists and companies to follow suit. Regrettably I have never met him, but I proudly acknowledge I am a photographer because of Jim French. Encountering his work for the first time in a bookstore in Dallas, Texas, in the early 1980s (Colt Men no. 5 … I still own it) was a revelation. Holding that magazine in my hands with its thick glossy paper and richly printed color and black and white images, I realized I was in possession of an extraordinary object. At the time I knew nothing about Jim French or his alter ego Rip Colt; however, there was no doubt in my mind that a master photographer in full command of his medium was at work here. All of the elements that make a Jim French photo so instantly recognizable were in evidence—the distinctive rim lighting, the sparkling gold and silver highlights glistening across muscled physiques, the expressive use of lush color. His use of softly diffused spotlights discreetly accentuating certain features of a model’s body … a pair of dreamy eyes in one picture, a set of chiseled abs in another, even a toe … is practically a Jim French trademark. And of course, there are the signature poses! At times French positions his subjects with a rhythmic linear quality that evokes the painted figures on an ancient Greek vase, the contrapposto of an Michelangelo sculpture, or the compositional swirl of a Baroque painting (in fact, subtle, erudite art historical references, especially to ancient Greco-Roman visual culture, abound in the work of Jim French). At other moments his models exhibit an almost aggressive inhibition—buttocks squatting and thrusting forward, powerful hands tearing open the contents of a tattered, well-worn jock strap, muscled legs spread wide to reveal an erect penis practically lunging out of the picture plane and into the viewer’s space.

Thankfully there is nothing coy or prudish about a Jim French image. Still, these daring poses do not simply titillate; they are careful elaborations in the compositional framework, creating vibrant surface pattern and extending the illusion of depth and verisimilitude. Models photographed in the studio constitute an important part of his œuvre, but his location shoots must be counted among his most thrilling and original images. Deserts, forests, canyons, beaches, mansions in the Hollywood Hills, pools in Palm Springs, construction sites, ranches, farms, even ghost towns, all challenged French to experiment with atmosphere and mood and afforded him means to enhance the subtle narrative quality he incorporates into many of his photographs. For those of us living in the provinces, Jim French’s images, especially the outdoor shots, came to symbolize the relaxed, uninhibited California lifestyle that so many of us longed to experience. I can only imagine how many gay men were inspired to move to Los Angeles or San Francisco after seeing a Jim French photograph (I was). Jim French’s images remain as clear to me now as they were the first moment I saw his work thirty years ago. His pictures linger in memory not just as lustful enticements (which they do brilliantly) but as ingeniously composed and meticulously realized works of art in their own right. The photographs that dazzled me that day in Dallas inaugurated my life-long fascination with Jim French and the visual universe he created. Later, when I began to ponder my own photography career, I immediately consulted my by-then vast archive of Colt magazines, books, and prints. Studying his techniques and analyzing his aesthetic in effect served as a master class, providing me with an enduring standard of quality by which I continue to judge my own work. I feel privileged to speak for the countless artists and devotees who over the years have been enriched and inspired by his images when I express my sincerest admiration and wonder for the vast and richly varied body of work Jim French envisioned and created … his commanding influence, innovative talents, and sheer fearlessness cannot be overestimated.

Mark Henderson

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HOUSEBOAT

JF: I’ve always worked with the Hasselblad system. I really only attempted using a larger format camera once when we were going to Lake Powell to work with Gordon Grant. I rented a 4 x 5 camera because we’re talking big country there. I thought, even though the Hasselblad lenses are excellent, two of my favorite landscape photographers—one was Galen Rowell and the other was David Meunsch—they both use 4 x 5 cameras, maybe even 8 x  10. So I rented a 4 x 5 camera and the tripod for it, and we had sheet film loaded and all of that. It was a nightmare. It was difficult and cumbersome. I got some pictures during that shoot that aren’t bad but I was not about to attempt a 4 x 5 camera again. It was overkill; it wasn’t really what I needed. 2¼ x 2¼ is large enough to do what it is I do. But I’ve always admired those two photographers because they both have done such beautiful images. Certainly Ansel Adams has, too, but he didn’t work that frequently in color. David Meunsch’s color is superb. Sometimes it must be difficult to reproduce because it can contain so many subtleties. To do what those two photographers did, and what Ansel Adams did, you have to really be dedicated to haul that stuff around because that’s a lot of heavy hardware. Of course, the results can be quite wonderful.

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RM: And did you get some usable pictures with the 4 x 5 on that shoot? JF: I got some, but I don’t think many of them have ever been used. The one picture that I used—I think we introduced Gordon Grant in an early issue of Olympus magazine, as I remember, and there’s a full-page photograph in that magazine which I hope one day to use again. It is significant because it’s what Colt Studio is all about. It’s a picture of Gordon Grant and Marty Palmer having sex on the roof of the houseboat that I had rented, and it’s a long shot. The two of them together coupled are not as big as a postage stamp, and they are surrounded by magnificent scenery. It took some filter work but it turned out beautifully. If you removed them and the houseboat you’d have a fine landscape picture. I don’t know of any other photographer who would have taken that picture and have it contain two men having sex. That picture says everything Colt is all about: it’s erotic and it’s beautiful, and I don’t see why those two elements can’t live side by side.


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