A champion of the erotic: The history of Champion Studio, Part I

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A champion of the erotic: The history of Champion Studio, Part I

Author’s note: This is the first in a two-part series on the history of Champion Studio

Like nearly all other male physique photographers in the mid-20th century, Walter Kundzicz’s life was equal parts beauty and struggle.

The man who would go on to introduce Champion Studio to the world of beefcake photography was born on January 10, 1925, in Newark, New Jersey. In the 2003 book “Champion,” Kundzicz recalled his early attraction to both photography and beauty.

“My parents were into photography, and they bought me a Kodak box camera for my eighth birthday. I loved it,” he says in the book’s introduction, adding that, as a child model for the department store Sears, he had a keen eye for beauty. “Photography soon became a captivating hobby … I took pictures of everything.”

That apparently included three neighborhood boys, all from Germany, and all with members measuring at least 11 inches. Kundzicz excitedly described how his lens captured them from every angle.

“I took photos from every angle, even lying on the floor, picturing their rigid flesh below, and then scrambling on top of the dresser to record them from above,” he writes.

Kundzicz, obviously much in tune with his sexuality from a young age, says he quickly identified the type of man who appealed to him.

“I became attracted to well-built, butch, good-looking guys, and developed a deep desire to photograph them in home settings, wearing see-through undergarments or form-fitting clothes,” Kundzicz says. Indeed, models wearing see-through undergarments eventually would become an identifying feature in his work.

Tragedy struck the Kundzicz family when the boy’s parents were killed in a accident when their car was smashed by an oncoming freight train. The boy was only 12 years old.

The next few years found Kundzicz further practicing his craft and making connections – both with models and with those in the art world. Kundzicz’s older brother became his guardian, and the youth moved to Tennessee to live with him. Once his brother and sister-in-law became parents, Kundzicz enlisted in the Army Air Corps, where he enjoyed many plenty of sexual romps with his fellow servicemen – “unsuspecting, butch guys, some of whom were married,” and some of whom professed their love for him. Kundzicz says these trysts made his time in the military “bearable.”

After being discharged in October 1945, Kundzicz moved back to New Jersey and found work as a draftsman for a local architect. A friend of Kundzicz’s put him in touch with two male physique photographers in Brooklyn, across the state line. He sparked a friendship with one, and became a quasi-apprentice for the other (Don Young), watching the artist oil up his models and set up his cameras.

Watching Young in action, Kundzicz finally became convinced that he, too, could make a living from photographing young men in the buff. Using his earnings working in architecture, Kundzicz established a studio in New York City and began selling his still images to a small but growing client base.

He didn’t enjoy his newfound vocation for long. Within mere months of establishing his business, Kundzicz was raided by the police. He described the police informant as a vicious, gay-oriented Nazi sympathizer” who convinced representatives of the NYPD’s morals squad to tap the studio’s telephone and plan the raid.

Kundzicz was in the middle of photographing model Jim Stryker when he heard a loud rapping on his front door, accompanied by, “Police! Open up!”

“I simply replied by saying, ‘If you have a warrant, slip it under the door,’” Kundzicz recalled. “He threatened to bust in the door. As I slowly opened the door, (the police officer) flung himself toward me and shoved a snub-nosed revolver into my ribs, telling me, ‘Here’s my warrant.’”

Though officers seized the photographer’s 16mm films and equipment, his color slides were safe, being stored at a friend’s house. The judge overseeing Kundzicz’s case, meanwhile, was a “friendly” one and dismissed the case under the dual conditions that Kundzicz see a psychiatrist and pay a $100 fine.  

Undeterred, Kundzicz and a friend worked for months saving up to found the studio that would become Champion. His inaugural model in his first catalogue ended up being Jim Stryker, the model with whom he was caught during the police raid. It was a fitting beginning to a beefcake empire. Stryker became one of Champion’s most popular models, with his photos selling consistently for nearly a decade. According to Kundzicz, Stryker eventually settled down, married, and had two children. Other memorable Champion models included Dick Stark (“a Columbia University student and a natural athlete”), Bo Branden, Ward Randall, and Guy Harding Moore.

Acting on a tip from Kundzicz’s former business partner, Jim Bradley, Kundzicz’s studio was eventually raided a second time by NYPD officers. This time, the items seized were fewer in number and certainly in worth. Kundzicz had wisely taken to keeping his original materials – still images, slides, and films – in multiple safety deposit boxes at a local bank.

This time, the trial dragged on for a dreary, anxiety-ridden eight months. A turning point came during a day of testimony in which the presiding judge asked a postal inspector in the court room said that the photographs seized in the raid appeared to show models with obvious erections.

“(The judge) said that appearance was one thing, yet it wasn’t enough to bring an indictment,” Kundzicz says. “He asked, ‘Have any of you gentlemen picked up any of these models to prove your contention that these guys have erections?’ Of course, the answer was no. ‘Then,’ he said, “how in the world can you tell for sure what appeared to be an erection was exactly that, until they are examined by professional medical personnel?”

Using the judge’s logic, “Champion could only be determined to be dealing in what might be considered soft-core pornography, and noted that if they were to prosecute Champion, it could open up prosecution of a great deal of advertising in the United States.” The judge, noting that any further efforts to prosecute Champion would be a waste of time and money, dismissed the case.

Once again, Kundzicz and Champion had their day in court. But their legal troubles weren’t over yet.