What a CHAMPION – An Abridged Introduction to Walter Kundzicz

What a CHAMPION – An Abridged Introduction to Walter Kundzicz

Compiled from an autobiographical account of the photographer’s life appearing in Reed Massingill’s bookCHAMPION.

“Have you gentlemen picked up any of these models to prove your contention that these guys have erections?”

It’s a question that would change Walter Kundzicz’s life forever. Presented to police and post office representatives regarding a set of images that were at the heart of an obscenity trial against the photographer, the question seemed to hold the future of male nudity in the balance. The photos in question, taken by Mr. Kundzicz, featured nearly naked models, cocks cleverly sheathed in translucent fabric, apparently sporting fully engorged members.

When the cops and postal flunkies responded to the judge’s inquiry in the negative, he promptly through out the case, pointing out that if they hadn’t seen the goods, they had no way of knowing what was wood and what wasn’t.

The decision was an unusual triumph for Kundzicz, and gay artists all over the United States.

In the 1930s, when Mr. Kundzicz’s first began photographing his friends and classmates in the buff, there wasn’t a porn industry to speak of. In its place stood a network of amateur photographers and collectors who dealt in illicit depictions of male nudity. The commercial equivalent of these images, known as beefcake, wouldn’t come to the fore for another 10 years. But, by the time the 1940s rolled around, the demand for depictions of the male body had grown significantly. Hocking sets of 4×5 black and white prints of flexing muscle studs, through thinly-veiled “physique publications,” Mr. Kundzicz’s predecessors cleared a path for the more adventurous, more graphic photography that would come to define later decades.

By the early 1950s, after a stint studying under a few of physique photography’s most fabulous names, the young Mr. Kundzicz was ready to take advantage of the rapidly expanding beefcake market. He filtered through a number of names before landing on the iconic title, Champion Studio. It was here that he would produce his most controversial, and captivating work. While other physique photographers followed the letter of the law, sheathing their subjects’ junk in opaque banana baskets, he turned to sheer briefs and translucent shower curtains to cover models’ members – a move that lead to the aforementioned trial.

The 1960s were a time of great change. Beefy muscle types gave way to slimmer builds, covered cocks became proud, exhibitionistic roosters, American obscenity standards gave way to hardcore action, and it was all available in full color. Perhaps no one took more advantage of the increased accessibility to color film and production than Mr. Kundzicz. And perhaps nothing came to define him more than the bold use of color in his photographs. His images of boyishly playful models in skimpy costumes, depicting everything from all-American football players to Bonanza-style cowboys, stood in stark contrast to the reality of gay life at the time, and his use of bright, saturated colors only pushed the fantasy farther.

After a long and successful career, Mr. Kundzicz fell on hard times, and his collection bore the brunt. Unable to house the Champion collection on his own, he turned to a new friend, amateur photographer, John Cox. Mr. Cox offered his New York storage space as a temporary fix. Unfortunately, his designs on Mr. Kundzicz’s life works were for keeps. The Champion collection has effectively been snatched from the hands of its creator, and held under the control of an apparently incapable executor. Most of his original work is still in Cox’s collection.

Luckily, Mr., Kundzicz has found his very own champion in photographer, Reed Massingill. With Mr. Massingill’s help, his photographs have been given the coffee table treatment – Goliath’s CHAMPION, Taschen’s The Big Penis Book – appeared in magazine all over the world – Blue, Exposed – and fetched big bucks at auction. But it’s Mr. Kundzicz who is the real champion here. Life has supplied him a steady stream of bullshit, and he’s managed to turn the manure into a beautiful, colorful comeback.