A champion of the erotic: The history of Champion Studio, part II

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A champion of the erotic: The history of Champion Studio, part II

Author’s note: This is part two of a two-part series on the history of Champion Studio and its founder, Walter Kundzicz. 

If the 1950s and ‘60s were decades of milk and honey for Champion Studio, the 1970s would signal significant change for Walter Kundzicz and the empire he had built. 

“Looking back over the years now, I can remember the 1950s and ‘60s as fun years as a physique photographer,” Kundzicz writes in his 2003 book, “Champion.” “The few photographers who succeeded may have been competitive, but we respected each other.”

But the world was changing, in just about every way imaginable. As the 1970s progressed, the clients who bought photo sets of their favorite models from Champion and the Athletic Model Guild began turning their attention – and their wallets – toward a porn market increasingly saturated with magazines and other forms of media. 

“You have to remember that Supreme Court rulings throughout the 1960s essentially legalized the dropping of the posing strap, allowing for images and films of nude models and, eventually, legalized pornography,” says Dennis Bell, founder and president of the Bob Mizer Foundation. “The decade of the 1970s is considered the Golden Age of pornography, and media consumers who had difficulty finding beefcake photos in previous years were eventually swamped with choices in porn and erotica, and from a variety of sources. So, existing studios like Champion had to adapt to that changing landscape.”

Kundzicz, in his book, says he knew he had to bring his business model into the new decade as the 1970s gave way to the ‘80s. 

“By the 1980s, my customers became less interested in paying for sets of color prints when they could buy magazines and get a lot more variety of models for nearly the same price,” Kundzicz recalls. “With porn readily available, the market for physique magazines dried up. I soon found distributors who would pay Champion well to produce four hardcore magazines a month with assorted titles for distributors across the U.S.”

Kundzicz once again tried his hand at film around that same time, producing 100-foot color loops and shooting models having actual sex instead of the simulated sex found in his magazines. Like Bob Mizer, whose own foray into shooting hardcore films was short-lived, Kundzicz found that his heart wasn’t in such movies. And whereas Mizer in his hardcore movies used shampoo in place of ejaculate because semen disgusted him, Kundzicz says he got out of the hardcore porn business because the mafia “essentially controlled the business.”

Instead, Kundzicz returned to his roots, and for the remainder of his career with Champion, he took photos of “good-looking, well-endowed guys wearing, sweating and cumming in their athletic apparel. I called it clothing erotica, and sold matching sets of color prints and slides, along with the actual clothes the models wore in the photo sessions.”

It was a smart decision, and one that eventually led Kundzicz to the doorstep of Don Sherrin of Male View magazine. One of Sherrin’s longtime customers, John Michael Cox Jr., befriended Kundzicz. Though Cox put him “off guard,” Kundzicz found himself on the receiving end of favors from the man, who generously gave Kundzicz storage space in one of his New York rental units. 

Soon, Cox and his reluctant new friend came to an agreement – Kundzicz allowed Cox to market and sell images made from his slides, and the two would split the proceeds evenly. For the first year of their deal, the income made from these sales was steady, Kundzicz notes, but after that, Kundzicz noted that the money stopped coming in with any regularity. When questioned, Cox became defensive and insisted he was doing his best, but that buyers were in short supply. Taken aback, Kundzicz dropped the issue. 

It wasn’t until several years later that Kundzicz learned that Cox had, in fact, sold more than $12,000 in prints in the years that followed, but kept Kundzicz’s share of the proceeds. What started out as a friendship then disintegrated into a shouting match between the two men, with Cox refusing to return the works with which Kundzicz had entrusted him. 

A 2010 article on Kundzicz and Champion Studio on the Foundation’s website paints a rosy, hopeful vision of the future for both: “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 … 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.”