The Photography of Jim French
Born in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania in July of 1932, James Thomas French was an American artist, photographer, illustrator, filmmaker, and publisher. He is best known for his association with COLT Studio, one of the most successful gay male erotica companies in the United States.
For his formal art education, Jim French entered the Philadelphia Museum School of Art in 1950 to study towards a career in fashion illustration similar to that of J.C. Leyendecker. In 1953, the year before his graduation from the Museum School, he joined the United States Army Reserves and went on active duty in 1955; French earned a honorable discharge from service in 1957. Settled in New York City, he pursued a successful freelance career as an advertising illustrator for several Madison Avenue advertising firms.
In addition to his work for Neiman Marcus and other high-end department stores, French also created textile designs for designer Tammis Keefe; collections of her work are now housed in Cooper Union and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Working with Columbia Records, he created portrait drawings of singers, such as Johnny Mathis. Frank Sinatra and Maria Callas, for use as album art. While working on Madison Avenue in the mid-1960s, French drew homoerotic drawings in his spare time, under the pseudonym of Arion. His drawings were offered in 1966 through Ed Wild’s Times Square Studio as well as his own short-lived mail order venture, the Arion Studio.
Jim French was approached by a friend from his Army days, Saul Stollman, who had seen some of his Arion drawings, to create a physique studio in New York City. French adopted a new pseudonym for this venture, Kurt Lüger, and under the name of Lüger Studios began producing new, more masculine figured illustrations, which featured leather men, cowboys, wrestlers, and other similar archetypes. Lüger Studio artwork first appeared as two drawings from the “Cowboy” series in the May/June 1966 issue of “Young Physique”. This series of six to eight drawings was advertised in other male erotica magazines and was available for purchase through mail order.
The success of Lüger Studio developed quickly after being featured in the pages and on the covers of a wide assortment of physique magazines. Saul Stollman bought out French’s interests in the studio in February of 1968 and briefly ran the business on his own. However, now featuring photographs and eight millimeter films from substandard producers, Lüger Studio did not attract enough interest to survive beyond 1968.
On December 5th of 1967, Jim French and Lou Thomas, a friend and astute businessman, took out a business license to form COLT Studio. Although originally named to evoke the image of the Colt pistol, the studio quickly changed its COLT image to that of a stallion. For this new venture, French adopted a new pseudonym, Rip Colt, and began to make highly detailed pencil drawings, using the newly marketed Polaroid camera to shoot photographs of male models for research studies. Before the camera’s advent, it had been a challenge getting erotic subject matter that was shot on film processed as many venues were reluctant to deal with this material. The Polaroid camera which contained its own processor solved that issue with its instant results.
In the initial years of the company, COLT Studio released French’s illustrations, under the Rip Colt name, and photo sets of masculine male models, The studio eventually added short films, magazines and calendars. Based for six years in New York City, COLT Studio was relocated in 1974 to Studio City in California, due to French’s frequent travels to Southern California. At this time, French bought the company shares owned by his partner Lou Thomas, who soon formed his own business, Target Studios, a venture which provided the underground demographic with quality homoerotic art and film.
COLT Studio grew into one of the most successful gay photography studios of its time and offered the highest quality male erotica commercially available. Jim French’s company was famous not only for its stable of male models, but also for its magazine brands which included Spurs, COLT Men, Manpower, and its film venue, COLT Studios Presents. French ran the company until 2003 when he sold the studio to former Falcon Studios director John Rutherford and his partner Tom Settle. For a few years after the sale of COLT Studio, Jim French continued to privately sell salon-style prints of his photographs before he settled into quiet retirement. Jim French died peacefully in his sleep at his Palm Springs, California, home on the 15th of June in 2017. He was survived by his husband Jeff Turner.
Under his own publishing imprint State of Man, Jim French published eight volumes of fine art male photography from 1972 to 1999, among which are “Man”, “Quorum”, “The Art of Jim French: the Nude Male”, and “Opus Deorum”. French’s work has been published in several collections: Felix Lance Falkon’s 1972 “A Historic Collection of Gay Art”; a collection of early 1970s photographs of model David Scrivanek entitled “Like a Moth to a Flame”; and an anthology of his early Polaroid photographs from the 1960s and early 1970s entitled “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor: Jim French Polaroids”. French’s photographs and illustrations can be found in many private and public collections.
Notes: In 2004, Gabriel Goldberg convinced Jim French to tell his own story to the public for the first time. This personal account entitled “Life Thru a Lens: Jim French: In His Own Words” can be found at the Advocate online magazine located at: https://www.advocate.com/people/2017/6/29/story-jim-french-and-colt
Many of Jim French’s Polaroid photographs can be found at the Wessel and O’Connor Fine Art website located at: https://wesseloconnor.com/exhibits/french/french1.phpd
Second Insert Image: Jim French, Untitled (Sailor with Shadow), Polaroid Print, 10.8 x 8.3 cm, Private Collection
Third Insert Image: Jim French, Untitled (Sailor), Polaroid Print, 10.8 x 8.3 cm, Private Collection
Bottom Insert Image: Jim French, Untitled, circa 1970s, Gelatin Silver Print, 56.5 x 71.7 cm, Private Collection