Close your eyes for a second and imagine you are at the party of your dreams. Everyone you love and are infatuated with is around you, the music you loved in your teens is playing, and bad trips are not a concept. You dance and you love and you spin and you love some more, and then all of your friends die.
I know it's harsh, but it's also sort of what happened to Tom Bianchi in the early 1980s, with the onset of AIDS. It's also the subject of his latest book, Fire Island Pines - Polaroids 1975-1983—a selection of photos taken in a small part of Long Island called the Pines, that functioned as a kind of IRL utopia for a large community of incredibly beautiful and charismatic gay men in the 1970s.
Tom's name, by the way, is one of those you should know, because he's been integral in making the world you live in a nicer place than how you found it. You see Bianchi—who, in the early 70s, also worked as a lawyer in New York and Washington, DC—has spent most of his life fighting AIDS and weird heterosexual attitudes toward gay culture. He is the co-founder of a biotech company researching AIDS medication and, if he feels like it, he can also boast a long catalogue of incredibly affectionate photography, poetry, and video work.
With the release of his new book as an excuse, I called Tom up to talk desire and grow up a little.
VICE: Hi Tom, how are you today?
Tom Bianchi: I’m very good, I just had a lovely breakfast out by the swimming pool. I’m ready to go today.
OK, let's do it. Shall we start by telling the story of how this book came to be?
Growing up and coming out in Middle America, you had to imagine a world very different to the one you were living in. The world we were living in disregarded us and called us perverts. So the brilliance of Fire Island was that it was built by those people who imagined a different world and set out to create it. We carved out the tiniest little place just for ourselves, where we could be safe and laugh and play with one another on the beach, and not have any negative judgement surrounding us. What that did was attract the best and the brightest gays from all over America—particularly because of its proximity to New York, which was the centre of so much culture, fashion, style, and even film. It was a very glamorous time.
Was the creation of this neighborhood planned or circumstantial?
The island is a 36 mile-long barrier a few miles off the Long Island coast, separated into small communities by extended open sand dunes. The Pines, which is one of these little villages, is a mile-long grid of boardwalks connecting about 600 houses built on telephone pole stilts sunk into the sand. Back then, some real-estate guys got to building on this virgin terrace, and it just so happened that the place began to attract bohemian New Yorkers; writers and artists would come out and live in little shacks. It wasn't intended for the gay community, but it made sense when it formed to be a home for it.
And you happened to be there with a fancy, new Polaroid camera, too.
I was a lawyer at Columbia Pictures at the time. At an executive conference in Miami, we were given an SX-70 Polaroid camera. It was this little plastic thing, which I took to Fire Island a little while later and started taking pictures of my friends. At the time, a lot of people were still in the closet so, as you can understand, they were extremely wary of having their picture taken. So, the important thing about this camera was that it allowed me to take the picture and a few minutes later put it out on the table for people to take a look. It made everyone immediately more comfortable and I very quickly formed the intention to show the world what a cool, amazing place the capital of Queerdom was. Or the provincial part of it [laughs].
Leafing through the book, I can't help but notice that everyone in the pictures is unbelievable hot.
Well, the reason is twofold. Gay men in my generation were called pansies or poofs. We had been raised to have very negative feelings about ourselves. It was around our time that more and more guys began to discover gyms, too. And the more guys went from ordinary looking men to "Oh, my God, look at that stud" the more of a no-brainer it became that you had to be as close to perfect as possible. Suddenly this really beautiful community of men emerged, and they all boarded planes, trains, or buses to Fire Island every weekend.
At the same time, I wanted my sexual partners to be really beautiful, hot guys. And I never wanted anyone to think I was using my camera to seduce people, so for the most part the intimate pictures are of people I had relations with.
I think you can tell. The subjects of your photographs look at ease with their bodies and the lens. I'm not sure I would be that comfortable posing nude for someone that I wasn't having sex with.
You need to know you’re going to be loved, and not exploited.
Talking about nudity, in your introduction you recall a story about a guy approaching you on the beach while you were photographing some sea shells, proposing that you take some sexier photos with him. At another point in the book, you mention that Sam Wagstaff also urged you to make the book more explicit, after having a look at the first edit. Do you think this insistence of people on nudity had anything to do with the fact that the community had to suppress their identities and desires for so long?
Yes absolutely, I mean these were personal transformation stories. It is this generation of men who are responsible for the whole gay pride movement. We developed this sense of community and started seeing ourselves as really special people, indispensable to the culture we lived in. And ultimately the one thing that brought us together was desire.
We went to that place to get laid by guys who were fun and we were attracted to. We went for sex and we went for dancing. You danced until you found the partner that would fill your bed that night. Desire is more profound than gravity. Gravity just holds the planet together, desire brings human beings together so they can create things. The importance of nudity, the power of physical desire that brought us together, can’t be overstated.
And then HIV came along. The sense that I got from reading your book is that the disease set the gay rights movement back quite a few years.
I think it's the opposite. I think what happened was that we were kids, partying along, thinking we were untouchable, immortal. AIDS forced us to grow up.
It was a wake-up call, then?
It was a wake-up call—not that we were doing anything bad. We were just doing what kids do. We were playing and it’s very important to learn to play. What AIDS did was to completely change the way we saw ourselves. At the same time, heterosexuals began to recognize the horror of their discrimination, too. Stories started circulating about people who were HIV-positive being turned out of their houses, communities, and not being admitted to hospitals. My eyes tear as I talk about it, because it was a holocaust. It was just unbelievable. We had to step up. We had to do something about it.
And you did.
Loads of us rose to the occasion and fought against it. A group of us in Los Angeles, for example, formed a biotech company to develop new therapies to treat HIV. I spent seven intense years of my life financing that effort and the research. But all of this refocused us.
What is more, at the time I made it, I couldn’t get the Fire Island book published. It was considered too queer. When David Peterson, my partner at the time, died of AIDS in 1988, that's when I really decided to make a book as a memorial and testament that we were still alive and vital. That book was Out of the Studio. I shot in black-and -white because I thought it would be less expensive than making a book in color. I was wrong about that. Anyway, Out of the Studio became a huge success, and the reason it did is because we were a community deeply in mourning and enormous fear. That book was a message of hope. It said, "We’re still intact, we’re still beautiful, we’re still powerful, and we’ll work our way through this.” And all the books that followed are about self-empowerment.
What became of the Pines?
In the immediate aftermath, we left the whole town in a state of shock, because our friends were starting to die one by one. You'd go back every now and again and conversation revolved around "Did you hear about…?" It became impossible to absorb, so then I just stepped back. Going back to my house in the Pines a little later, it just felt… that my friends were gone.
I've bummed you out. Let’s end on a happy note. Tell me one happy story about the Pines.
OK, there are so many of these. This one is from one of my first times in the Pines. These guys were hosting a dinner at their house. They made Hawaiian Turkey with chunks of pineapple. After dinner, one of the guys bought out a folding chair and placed it on top of the coffee table and put on this Hawaiian music record. Then this other guy came out of the bedroom, wearing one of those 1930s black-jersey swimsuits, with port holes cut out on the sides, and one of those rubber bathing caps embossed with curls from the 50s. He proceeded to do an Esther Williams aquatic number on the chair. It was so beautiful. Right then and there I thought, This is crazy. And this is what I want to be doing in my life. To be surrounded by these mad, beautiful, wonderful people.
If you'd like to learn more about Tom and his work you should visit his website and if you would like to get your hands on Fire Island Pines - Polaroids 1975-1983 you should click here.
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