Gary Boas is not a star fucker, but judging from the level of intimacy in his photographs of celebrities and porn stars taken in the late '70s and '80s, it's hard to imagine he didn't know these people inside and out. The truth is, he did know them, but not exactly in the biblical sense. For 40 years Boas has lived his life as a welcomed voyeur on the front lines of the porn industry, a fly on the wall in seedy Times Square sex clubs that was given a front row seat to an exclusive show. "I was living life through the lens of the camera," says the photographer, who made his living shooting celebrity portraits of luminaries like Liz Taylor or Sylvester Stallone. At the time his photographs of porn stars and the 42nd street crowd were part of his off duty life, where he hung out before and after running over to try to get the best shot of a celebrity. "It was like living a double life," he says, "shooting a porn star and then running out to shoot Liz Taylor. I was just there living it."
Now, Gary shares his intimate images -- some of which have been published in his 2003 book Gary Lee Boas: New York Sex 1979-1985 -- and even more intimate stories, of the porn industry that he got to know so well. From discussing one-time sexual experience with his favorite performer to his thoughts on the vast changes in the porn industry and New York City, Gary isn't afraid to bare it all.
How did you get involved photographing porn stars?
When I was younger, I worked in my hometown's local porn store in Pennsylvania. It was taboo those days, I had to sneak in and out. I could watch the way people acted in there. And when you work in a place like that in a small town you become the local Dr. Ruth. Everyone comes in and tells you all their sex problems and you are supposed to have the answer because you're selling the stuff! It really liberated my mind to not ever look at people as being twisted or sick because everyone has their own little journey.
When I came to New York I was hanging out over there on 42nd street and Seventh avenue, by Show World or The Follies. Right where there is a Auntie Anne's pretzel store is now. I wanted to go in these clubs but I didn't have the money, so I would stand outside and everyone would mistake me for for a trick; everyone was thinking I was selling my shit!. It was easier to get into the girls clubs, so I started making friends with the managers and I guess they liked me so I got in. I started talking to the performers and I got to know them for who they were and not just who they were performing as. Their real names. They would come visit me in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and it was like a porn rehab after dancing in New York for a week. They were burned out, drugged out, fucked out, something. And I really got to know them and in turn they hooked me up with jobs.
Your images capture an alternate perspective than what we are used to seeing of the porn industry– the pictures are uplifting, like everyone is truly having a great time. Did you choose to document this or is it just what you saw?
Well, I was very sexual myself. I was in my 20s and 30s so I was still peaking and I was a dancer, so I had it going on, too. And it was pre-AIDS time. I used to go to sex clubs but I went more as a voyeur. I was around it so much that I became sort of jaded on the physical stuff.
The gays were doing this stuff for a long time but then Plato's Retreat opened up and the straights started going. It was the first designated place straight people could go for a spa experience or a sex experience, and you had the choice. I remember seeing a nude lady in there laying on the couch eating a plate of potato salad. (They had a buffet to keep your stamina up.) So it was a fun time.
I'm so glad I took these pictures. So many people didn't document that time and I wasn't thinking about it. I was just there and living it.
How do you feel that the porn industry has changed?
Well there are so many more [porn stars] now. And they are kind of like blow up dolls. The porn stars I knew have gone on to be doctors or teachers, starting AIDs campaigns or teaching about sex. They are ones that really look things seriously. I was on a panel with some of the biggest porn stars of the 80s and they said that back then they did it purely because they enjoyed sex and then the money was the bonus. Now they feel that it's all about the money.
Were you ever star struck?
There was one. Lance. He was a big gay porn star in the 80s and it was hard for me to separate my own heat level. You know I always wanted to make sure that these porn stars saw me as a friend, not another trick or another john, or someone trying to get in their pants. It was tiring, all these people talking to them as an organ rather than as people.
Lance was one of my favorite [porn stars] and I saw him on the street. I knew his real name was David so I talked to him and I told him what I did as a photographer and we started hanging out. He was straight and didn't prostitute so every moment he had free from performing he wanted to see New York -- go to the Empire State building and all that. I actually started to like him and I never got like that, all giddy. We hung out all week and finally I needed to ask him, but I didn't know if I would have to pay or if he would shut me down or what. So I was about to ask and he stopped me and said: Let me guess, you really like me, you want to see if this could go anywhere?
He knew exactly what I was thinking, and he told me that he liked hanging out with me too but he was only gay for pay in movies, that he didn't really want to do it any more than he had to. He said, Look you're funny and I like you and I'm certainly not going to charge you.
So we go into the hotel and I'm giddy, like I'm about to lose my cherry or something! And he undresses right away and man, I melt. There it is live in front of me. But he was so tired, he just laid down on the bed and said Have a good time. It was just there for the taking but I felt a little weird about it, like I was using him but he was ok with it.
He was watching the TV and Dynasty was playing. It was a big episode where they are all fighting in the fountain. So I'm trying to have sex with him but I'm also all worried about Linda Evans and Joan Collins in the show and I suddenly realize Lance is asleep! With a full erection! And here I am, conflicted: dick or Dynasty?
It didn't happen, but I do remember him fondly.