IIn 1975, a 28-year-old, gay lawyer named Tom Bianchi was given a Polaroid camera and took it out to his weekend share. Like most guys with a lens, Bianchi started taking pictures of his friends. Unlike a lot of guys, Bianchi’s pictures were of beautiful men, his “friends” some of the most powerful people in the country, lots of whom were closeted, and his share was on a tiny strip of wonderland called Fire Island Pines.
“At the time, people were very shy and not out, so pictures could be very damaging,” Bianchi, now 66, told me from his home in Palm Springs. “By doing it as Polaroids, I could go to a party and people would see what I was doing, and it was clear that I was shooting atmosphere, not identity. Calvin Klein was out there, David Geffen. You could go through just about every creative field. Perry Ellis, Peter Allen, Jerry Herman; he wrote Hello, Dolly! on his house on the beach.”
Bianchi ended up with 6,000 Polaroids, the largest collection of “community” photos at the time, and ended up sealing them in a box for 30 years. That’s about to change: Fire Island: The Book is set to be published next year, followed by a documentary film. “The Polaroids did not degrade,” says Bianchi. “It’s an aesthetically amazing project; it looks like you’re looking at paintings.”
Or a period piece. “It’s our history, the birth of gay culture,” Bianchi says. “The discos, the circuit parties. The cult of body idealization was also fostered in the Pines. We viewed America as a distant place, certainly physically distant. When we got onto the ferry we entered our own world. It was a hyper-active atmosphere. There was a cross-fertilization process that took place. It certified everyone’s talent.”
Every garden dies, and by the time the next decade hit AIDS had decimated Long Island’s Eden. “You can’t write a book about the maiden voyage of the Titanic without mentioning that there’s an iceberg lurking ahead,” says Bianchi. “The book is a nostalgic remembrance of what was lost. When AIDS hit, the Pines was dead center, ground zero. It would happen within the space of a summer. If there was a house that had six friends, come spring you would discover that everyone in the house had died. I would take a walk on the beach, and every friend I encountered would say ‘Have you heard about…?’ It was followed with someone in the hospital or someone that died.”
Bianchi, who is HIV positive, fell in love on the island, and among those gone is his partner, David Peterson, whom succumbed to the disease in 1988. “I didn’t get the virus fucking a bunch of people. It was one night in a monogamous relationship,” he says. “We didn’t learn until later that David was infected. David’s death and my status gave me a new sense of myself—a new purpose in life. HIV can be a blessing in disguise if you manage your sexuality in a conscious way. I was a painter making large works for corporations. After David’s death I was an artist talking about our gay community.”
Sexuality has been a consistent theme in Bianchi’s work since Out of the Studio was published in 1991. Twenty books later, Bianchi’s once “pornographic” images have transformed what’s acceptable in homoerotic photography. When Bianchi first attempted to get his Fire Island book published, in the late ‘70s, “We were told the book was too queer. We were told that a salesman who sells books would not put this book in their briefcase outside New York or San Francisco. If I couldn’t get national distribution, it wouldn’t have a chance to recoup production costs.”
Today, you can’t log on to a gay website or magazine without seeing semi- or fully-naked men, and Bianchi wants to keep the focus on art. “My books are about sexual beauty,” he says. “Out of the Studio was the first time gay men were represented as affectionately connected. I want to shift human consciousness from the fear-based attitudes about sex.
“Look at Romney or Gingrich. You can’t find better cases of sexual dysfunction. The highest suicide rate is gay, Mormon kids. What kind of belief systems are they peddling? You have a completely insane section of the culture clinging to one another in ancient rule structures. They feel safe, mindlessly following the rules of ‘Leviticus.’”
This summer Bianchi is returning to the Pines, as he often does, and for a man who once had a Prayer List of friends who’d died of AIDS, he doesn’t sound maudlin. “I think the only real difference is the change in economic circumstances,” he says on FIP today versus then. “The Pines is an essentially necessary place. If it wasn’t there it would have to be invented.”
As someone who has seen it all, and photographed it all, though, Bianchi does have words for anyone jumping off the ferry with a big heart and not a lot of experience. “I don’t want anyone to learn the lesson of mortality the way we did,” he says. “When I hear people asking about barebacking, I tell them ‘You don’t want to learn the danger of this virus the way we did.’ Had you been in New York or Los Angeles at that time, every week you would have seen men, friends who’d been gorgeous now covered with lesions, suffering dementia, with ulcerated limbs—all the horrors you can imagine. Our reality was a nightmare.”
Bianchi is now in an intense editing process and launching a new online gallery. One of the collections is the Fire Island Polaroids offered in limited edition digital prints. “We’ve taken a number of the pictures to as large as forty-by-forty inches,” he says. “It’s amazing—and beautiful—to see this lost world recovered.”
Many from Bianchi’s then-forbidden paradise are alive, and he’s getting in touch with them. Says Bianchi: “Too many of the men I shot back then are no longer alive. I’m contacting those who are still with us and asking if anyone knows the stories of men I’ve lost contact with.” Those boys of summer will have pictures on Bianchi’s blog with the question, “Has anyone heard from him?”
For more information, visit www.TomBianchi.com.