I wasn't sold on whether I should interview anyone besides actual Colt models for my project about the men of Jim French's Colt Studios. The point of the project has always been to give voice to primary sources. But the only man harder to find than a living Colt model is one who's willing to talk to me.
And it quickly became apparent that while I might never be sure of exactly how well Tim* knew Darren, his experience of the time and place I'm trying to understand wasn't observed from the sidelines.
"Darren and I grew up in the same town," Tim says. "We were in a small community of gymnasts. We connected eyes a few times and went from there. It wasn't a romance between us, just a good fit sexually. But we were also good friends and stayed close until he died."
According to Tim, Darren "always got a lot of attention. He was the kind of guy who, whether he rejected you or gave you the green light, left everyone feeling good."
Darren moved to California around 1975, leaving Tim and his hometown behind. Tim remembers warning him that he'd be "just another pretty face" on the West Coast. But it wasn't long before that pretty face started popping up in the adult bookstore back home.
"I saw his face on the cover of a magazine," he says. "Blueboy, I think. And he always modeled under his real name, so he wasn't hard to find."
When Tim visited Darren in California, Darren told him that he "really wanted to get to Colt," that he knew Jim French's work was "on another level from any of the work he was doing."
That same year, Tim received some photos from Darren in the mail.
"I thought to myself, 'These look good,'" Tim says. "They were the first pictures of him that looked as attractive as the guy I knew. And honestly, I felt relieved. I could tell from the pictures that he trusted the photographer."
Darren worked with Colt for about four or five years, as well as some more "aggressive" work with other studios.
"All the other stuff Darren was doing looked pretty rough next to what he did with Jim," Tim says. "Even the duo films he did with Colt were real choppy and grainy. They never had the same magic as the stills."
Tim attributes much of this "magic" to Darren's stable upbringing: "He was modeling under his real name! It wasn't some alter ego for him. He didn't have a chip on his shoulder about life back home. I think it's what made him so natural in front of the camera."
"Darren's parents always supported him," Tim goes on. "They knew he was gay. They knew he was 'modeling.' He had a deal that he wouldn't do anything to embarrass them. I think it's how he managed to avoid the darker parts of the lifestyle -- drugs, hustling and all that."
After a few years, Darren got into a serious relationship and stepped away from the adult industry. But in Tim's mind, Darren's decision was as much a result of the changing sexual atmosphere as it was a result of the new romance.
"Everything started moving to video," Tim says. "When he started, it was just like getting some guys together, turning the camera on and seeing what might happen. But with VHS, people started writing scripts with plots and trying to act and direct. It just turned into a big production. It wasn't fun anymore."
Darren died of a sudden heart attack in 1995, several years after moving back to the hometown where Tim still resides. After the funeral, Tim went to Darren's parents' house and noticed a familiar image in an arrangement of photos in their living room.
"It was crazy, but one was definitely a picture by Jim French," he tells me. "The same set-up from one of Darren's Colt shoots, just fully dressed and smiling wide to the camera. He told me once that when he wrapped a shoot with Jim, he would say, 'Now take one or two I can give to my family.' But to actually see it on his mother's mantle, right after his funeral, it was pretty surreal."
Before bidding Tim farewell, I ask if he knows any other performers in the adult industry, hoping he might connect me to another interview.
"Oh, sure!" he says, as though the men I've been scrambling to track down for over a year shouldn't be so hard for anyone to find. "Most of them are gone now. But there were a lot of guys who'd get a little body on 'em and try it. Maybe not forever, but it was like doing drugs: You try it once, and now you can say you tried it. I came up in a close-knit community of athletic men. And I looked the part, so I could move with these guys comfortably."
I become very conscious of whatever "part" I look (or don't) and how uncomfortably I have always moved with "these guys."
No one has ever asked me to take my clothes off in front of a camera. Hoping I might achieve a contact high, I ask Tim if he ever tried this "drug" himself.
"Yeah," he says, a similar nonchalance to his voice. "Some print modeling, some physique stuff in college. But I wasn't a natural for it. I was always afraid it would come back to haunt me. But you've got to remember: Back then, everybody had it.
"Ninety-five percent of the guys in porn today aren't memorable," he goes on. "Hairless below the eyebrows, on some head trip, where they can't look like they're enjoying themselves. That moment's just over now. Maybe I'm an old timer. But it seems like even younger men are looking back to that era and can see it was a special time.
"I mean, even you," he says. "Why are you looking back?"
I freeze, feeling the lens of my own camera suddenly point back at me.
And for what it's worth, I feel a little naked.
*Following our interview, "Tim" asked that I remove any names and identifying information, to protect "Darren's" family.