The Man Who Changed Male Erotica Forever

  • TextMiss Rosen

At a time when nudity was still considered obscene, Jim French proposed that the male body should be celebrated, not censored, and devoted his career to ‘making marvellous-looking men look their most impressive’

Over the course of five decades, American photographer, filmmaker, and publisher Jim French (1932-2017) elevated male erotica to a place of honour within the pantheon of art – creating COLT Studio, the most successful male physique photography company in the US.

Born in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, French moved to Harrisburg at the age of nine and spent the rest of his childhood there. His parents were both musicians: his mother sang and his father played the violin. French himself was drawn to art and went to study at the Philadelphia School of Art before enlisting in the army and going on active duty 1955. Two years later, he was honourably discharged and moved to New York, where he began working as a fashion illustrator.

When Saul Stoltzman, an old Army buddy, saw some of French’s mostly unpublished homoerotic drawings, he suggested they partner up to create Lüger, a New York-based mail order company. French began to produce drawings of hyper-masculine archetypes like bikers, cowboys, wrestlers, and bodybuilders, which did not contain full frontal nudity due to the constraints of the Comstock laws, which made it illegal to distribute naked pictures through the mail.

“In those days, there were very few avenues for this kind of art,” French told Gabriel Goldberg in a 2004 interview for Man magazine. “People today don’t realise what the climate was like in the late 60s. When I started Lüger, frontal nudity was considered obscene. Early photographers such as Lon in New York were being prosecuted if their pictures showed a glimpse of pubic hair peeking over a posing strap. This was very, very restrictive.”

“It wasn’t until the early 70s that through a Supreme Court decision frontal nudity per se could not be considered obscene – thereby validating all the great masters who had painted nudes. It was awfully generous and considerate of the Supreme Court to validate what everyone from Caravaggio and Michelangelo had done.”

Speaking over the phone from his home in Palm Springs, French’s husband, Jeffery Turner, reveals more about his approach to art. “Jimmy did not think of his work as pornography. He thought of it as physique art or art of the male human figure. The male nude is an erotic image, while the female nude is considered an artistic image but that is a new idea. We have always considered the male nude a high subject for art. That everyone today sees it as pornography is unfortunate. We’re still afraid of the penis. The most powerful image maybe in Western society is still powerful – and it is shocking.”

“We have always considered the male nude a high subject for art. That everyone today sees it as pornography is unfortunate. We’re still afraid of the penis. The most powerful image maybe in Western society is still powerful – and it is shocking” – Jeffery Turner

French was primarily interested in the nude, and published his pictorials in gay magazines, which supported the tradition of illustration during the late 40s and 50s. “Jimmy did pursue a sexual nature in his art because it made money, and that’s is the truth of it,” Turner notes. “He was always afraid of being arrested because so many other people were arrested for sending obscenity through the mail. Illustrating for magazines was easier, but you made money off mail order. As time went on, the morality of things changed and he went with that.”

French had an innate ability to cater to the times and responded to the demand for high-quality erotica through a variety of mediums including photography, films, books, magazines, and calendars. In 1967, French took on the name Rip Colt and founded COLT Studio. Here, he published his first magazine, Manpower!, which featured homoerotic drawings and photographs. Although the size of the magazine was traditional, French had to make it even larger to help curb the problem of theft that many magazine sellers had been reporting.

Nat Gozzano, COLT Studio’s archivist and art director since 1997, notes, “As opposed to the early male pin-ups that were for gay audiences, but still masquerading as muscle magazines and athletic training magazines, Jim was more directly tailoring his images to the taste of gay audiences. His composition was so strong and from life drawing classes, he really knew how to pose models with strong tension in their bodies – and that set him apart from other people right away.”

“As opposed to the early male pin-ups that were for gay audiences, but still masquerading as muscle magazines and athletic training magazines, Jim was more directly tailoring his images to the taste of gay audiences” – Nat Gozzano

Part of French’s creative process involved taking Polaroids from which he would develop drawings for his audience. “The Polaroids stopped being a focus of his photography when he started COLT Studio and got a Hasselblad and was doing things in a very professional manner for magazines. You can’t quite do that with a Polaroid because you will lose some of the quality, and Jimmy was always interested in quality,” Turner explains.

In 1974, French moved the entire operation to the San Fernando Valley, and from here he ran company until he sold it in 2003. COLT Studio exclusively featured French’s work in a series of books, magazines, and calendars, including a 1974 photography monograph titled Another Man.

Then, in early 1975, Sex Pistols frontman Malcolm McLaren picked up a copy of issue 7 of Manpower!, French’s magazine, which contained the illustration Longhorns – Dance at a coffee shop on Christopher Street while visiting New York, and brought it back to London where Vivienne Westwood used it without permission on a T-shirt sold at Sex. The image caused such an uproar that Alan Jones, the first person to wear the shirt in public, was arrested and charged with the Vagrancy Act of 1824. The following day, the police raided Sex and impounded the shirts. Sid Vicious began wearing the shirt thereafter.

“Pornography does not interest me. Photography interests me. And making marvellous-looking men look their most impressive. That’s what I’ve always been about” – Jim French

The impact of French’s work is a testament to the strength of his vision, which can be seen in both his commercial and fine art work, which he produced for a second company, State of Man. Turner notes, “Jimmy was following two paths. The COLT stuff made the money and the State of Man stuff was his art. State of Man was established after he started COLT. He wanted an outlet for his art.”

After selling COLT Studio in 2003, French focused on his State of Man work, including books and salon prints. His final years were filled with the publication of books including The Jim French Diaries (Bruno Gmünder, 2015) and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor: Jim French Polaroids (Antinuous Press, 2013), which was accompanied by an exhibition at ClampArt in New York.

French died in his Palm Springs, California, home in June 2017 at the age of 84. His impact and influence on gay male visibility compares only with Tom of Finland – Google “gay Colt model” and 15 million results appear instantaneously. Like Tom, French understood the power of the sexually charged masculine image rendered with artistic grace.

French told Goldberg, “I see my work as erotica, not porn. Frankly, pornography bores me, because 99.9 per cent of it is lacking the one thing that makes it successful. And that is, it’s not erotic! It’s people doing a job for X amount of dollars in front of the camera. Pornography does not interest me. Photography interests me. And making marvellous-looking men look their most impressive. That’s what I’ve always been about.”