Tom Bianchi’s ‘Fire Island Pines’ depicts a gay paradise lost
If You Go …
What: Tom Bianchi, ‘Fire Island Pines: Polaroids, 1975-1983’
Where: The Nugget Gallery, 415. E. Hyman Ave.
When: Sneak Peak, Sunday, Jan. 11, 7 p.m.; Fashion & Art Night Out, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 6-9 p.m.; Artist Reception & Book-signing, Thursday, Jan 16, 7 p.m.
More info: www.nuggetaspen.com
Over the next 10 days in Aspen, rainbow flags will be raised throughout town and most all the bars will be gay bars as the town hosts its 38th annual Gay Ski Week. The yearly festival, these days, is one of the innumerable circuit parties around the world, bringing the gay community together in celebration of itself. But before there was Gay Ski Week, and before resorts and cities around the world began welcoming queer bacchanals, there was Fire Island Pines.
By the time photographer Tom Bianchi began spending summers there in 1970, the New York beach hamlet had become a haven of gay social life. In his 2013 book, “Fire Island Pines,” Bianchi recalls his first weekend there as “an impressionistic blur of suntan bodies, dance floors tightly packed with bare torsos in communal caress, lithe bodies dancing on tables at tea and lantern lit dinners on a deck overlooking the sea.”
He documented that idyllic, sexually charged scene over the course of eight years with a Polaroid SX-70 camera, capturing the euphoric spirit of gay men creating a community in a place where they were free to be themselves, during a time when Fire Island was one of the few places they could do so.
“I think that the Fire Island Pines photos were the first document of that expression of that communal entity getting together to celebrate itself,” Bianchi said in a phone interview this week. “I don’t recall any parties going on around the world that were anything like what was happening at Fire Island at that time. It was a singular event.”
During Gay Ski Week, the Nugget Gallery will host an exhibition of Bianchi’s Fire Island Pines photographs, which are collected in “Fire Island Pines.” The gallery will host a book-signing and reception on Jan. 16.
Bianchi’s iconic pictures have origins in a chance gift. Bianchi’s boss at Columbia Pictures, where he worked as an attorney in New York during the 1970s, gave him the Polaroid SX-70 camera as a party favor. He began bringing the camera with him for visits to Fire Island and shooting photos in 1975. At first, most of his subjects obscured their faces, fearing they might be outted or the photos would be used against them. As time went on, though, the men at Fire Island grew more comfortable with Bianchi and his Polaroid.
He sensed, even then, that he was documenting a historic movement in American culture.
“The world I was depicting was so completely at odds with the prevailing prejudices,” he said. “I knew that at some point in time, when we got over those prejudices and we looked back, we’d see that there were a large number of courageous people who dared to be themselves. Certainly the Pines provided a safety zone for that.”
Bianchi shot so many photos, and went through so much film, that Polaroid eventually contacted him to tell him he was the second-largest purchaser of SX-70 film in the world (only IBM bought more). When he told the company about his project, they embraced it. He got a book deal in the early ’80s from a New York publisher, only to see it nixed by the marketing department. Andy Warhol also championed the photos’ publication, to no avail.
Sam Wagstaff, the famed curator and mentor to Robert Mapplethorpe, likewise saw the importance of what Bianchi was documenting on Fire Island.
“You have the one thing no one else has,” Wagstaff told him. “You have the uncanny ability to take us behind the closed doors of you and your friends’ lives. Make your book about these people. That will be fascinating hundreds of years from now.”
The project also allowed him to capture a lost world and what would become a lost generation of gay men. The free-spirited days that Bianchi captured in his photos from 1975 to 1983, of course, were followed by the onset of the AIDS epidemic. When it hit, AIDS killed many of the men he had photographed, including Bianchi’s longtime lover, David Peterson.
Last year, the HBO adaptation of Larry Kramer’s play about the onset of the AIDS crisis in New York, “The Normal Heart,” used the idyllic scene at Fire Island Pines — and imagery reminiscent of Bianchi’s photos — as a harbinger of the public health crisis to come.
As AIDS ravaged the gay community, and he wondered how much time he might have to live, Bianchi said, he couldn’t bring himself to look at his Fire Island Polaroids.
Today, these photos, in all their carefree beauty, are weighted with the history of what came after and the deaths of the men celebrated in Bianchi’s images.
“What I realize now is the preciousness of this document,” he said. “It was a lost generation.”
Bianchi recalled visiting the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. and seeing a photography exhibit about a small town in Poland, filled with images of serene domestic scenes from before the Nazis came. He feels similarly, he said, looking back on his Fire Island Pines photos.
“There’s a gravitas, in terms of American history, to what this project describes,” he said. “The genius of our community, of course, is that it’s bounced back.”
You can easily draw a line from the freedom of the gay community expressed at Fire Island in Bianchi’s photos to recent landmarks such as the electoral victories for gay marriage, the U.S. Supreme Court’s rejection of the Defense of Marriage Act and President Obama evoking the Stonewall riots in his 2013 inaugural address.
For Bianchi and many others, the fight for equal rights for gays began on the beach.
“It wasn’t very long after we were holding hands on the beach at Fire Island that we were holding hands on the streets of New York City,” he said. “Before Fire Island, you just wouldn’t have done that. You would have had to be an outrageous, flamboyant person who was out to make a statement. But after a couple summers at the Pines you wondered, ‘Why wouldn’t I put my arm around my boyfriend as we walk down Fifth Avenue?’ It was an empowering experience for the coming out process.”
While Bianchi’s Fire Island Pines photos are important historical documents — capturing a moment in time and what Edmund White calls in the book “one version of gay happiness” — the painterly composition of the photos and their gauzy, nostalgia-laden coloring are remarkable. As a child, Bianchi spent a great deal of time viewing art and paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago. Taking his SX-70 to the beach, he envisioned the scene at the Pines through the eyes of the masters collected at the Art Institute.
“What informed that world for me was that I wanted my pictures of my friends to be as beautiful as any art I’d seen,” he said. “And surprisingly, perhaps paradoxically, this instant camera allowed that.”
The innocent love and beauty he saw through the Polaroid lens, he thought, would be an effective weapon against the intolerance and bigotry of the day.
“When I was doing the Fire Island project, I did have a political agenda,” Bianchi said. “That was to show our moms that we were like the boys next door, and not a threat. Because the image of gay people was so terribly negative.”
When Bianchi’s book of collected Fire Island Pines photos was finally released in 2013, it won international acclaim. Within the gay community, Bianchi said, he’s been pleased to see it become popular not only with baby boomers like himself, but with younger generations.
“They didn’t know this existed,” he said. “They didn’t have such an image of their history. So some of this is nostalgia, and we’re attached to it because we remember the experience. To others, it just seems like a mythical time.”
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