Photographer Tom Bianchi Captures The Sun-kissed '70s Gay Bacchnalia of Fire Island Pines

by Luigi Tadini
In the early '70s, Tom Bianchi stepped off the ferry from Long Island into the Pines -- Fire Island's legendary haven for New York's gay community -- armed with an SX-70 Polaroid camera. For nearly a decade the lawyer-turned-photographer captured the hedonistic parties, sun-kissed, chiseled bodies and sexually-charged experimentation of the storied weekend getaway. This summer, a collection of Bianchi's pictures celebrating the euphoric, anything-goes years preceding the AIDS epidemic has been published for the first time in the coffee table tome Tom Bianchi: Fire Island Pines, Polaroids 1975-1983. Here, we talk with Bianchi about the new book and life on Fire Island. 

Luigi Tadini: What did the Pines represent to young gay men in the '70s and '80s? In your introduction you describe going to Fire Island as a "We're not in Kansas anymore" moment. 
Tom Bianchi: I came from middle American suburbs, so one of the first things that completely charmed me were these houses floating on stilts. That was an unimaginable thing unto itself. When you put, us, queer people, in that magical, physical space (it is one of the most gorgeous beaches in the world, and I spent my life going to beaches) something wonderful happens. It was unlike anything else I had ever experienced in the world. 

LT: At the time, the Pines was sort of taboo to the outside world. How did you get your first subjects to pose for you? 
TB: The first hurdle I had was to appear as someone who wasn't going to blackmail others. It helped that I was myself a lawyer at the senior counsel at Columbia Pictures at the time. So I had a big stake in my straight career life as well. Because the photographs were instant I could lay them out at a party so people could see what we were making. It put people in a comfortable place. The more pictures I made, the more people became comfortable with me being present.  

LT: Was blackmailing a common thing at the time? 
TB: This may seem bizarre but at that time, in Chicago, where I came from, for example, the police were raiding bars. They were harassing people and setting up decoys in restrooms. It was an environment where you literally were not safe. And if you got caught doing some-thing, your job was on the line. 

LT: Your photos perfectly capture the chiseled, hyper-masculine image that gay men established during that decade. Do you think that gay physique affected the way the community saw itself and the way others saw them? 
TB: That's a very good question and it touches on something very interesting to me about how we address the issue. At the time, only Robert Mapplethorpe and I were honestly portraying our life and interests. As I worked on my book, I kept adding sociologic aspects on the development of the gay culture. My thing was, "If you think we're weak pansies, look again." I think [members of the community] started becoming each other's very own sexual fantasies. 

LT: While you were shooting, was there always an idea that it could become a book? Was there an agenda behind it?
TB: Yes. Everybody knew it. I feel in a very real sense that the project was a community effort. People welcomed me and got invested in it.

LT: When you first started shopping around for a book deal in the late '70s, you were turned down by several publishers. Why?
What happened back then was very interesting. Edmund White gave me the name of his agent and she saw the dummy of the project and said, "There's only one editor in New York who could do this," and that was Larry Freundlich. I didn't know enough about the New York publishing world to know if he was a big deal, but it turns out he was! Larry went through the book very carefully and he looked up at me and said, "My God, I've never seen anything like this." And then added, "I've never imagined this kind of intimacy between men." Then he asked me if Fire Island was well enough known in the gay community. We both understood there would be no problem selling the book, as there would definitely be an audience for it, but he had to get the marketing department behind it. Two weeks later my agent called to say that their marketing team was saying no and they couldn't risk so much capital on something that novel (another way of saying "queer").

LT: Apart from sexuality, do you think the book is also about celebrating the Pines community and the fraternity between gay men?
Yes. There are expressions of affection throughout the book -- men swimming, hanging out, laughing. I remember discussing my Pines family with my mother once. At home, "family" was a series of dysfunctional, neurotic relationships. Your connections with your family were social obligations. I remember saying to her, "Can you imagine what it's like with the people I'm with? That I live with? That I socialize with?" And that's what the feeling of the Pines was. We had all grown up feeling very isolated. It was critically important -- and I say this in the book -- that we talked about the nature of our lives, how we treated one another, if we were in jeopardy for all the wildness we were experiencing, what were the rules about drugs. These were all open, continuous conversations.

LT: Some of your photos depict drug use and you mention its significance in the book's prologue. What kind of role did drugs play in the Pines' culture?
As audacious as this might sound, what I found in the Pines was essentially responsible drug use. Pot was pretty standard, but I also discovered MDMA and something called Purple Haze. I'll never know quite what that was, but there was nothing more wonderful. To me, the drug culture broke down what was wrong with straight society. It helped us live more sensually. I think a fear of drugs is a fear of sex. They are inextricably tied together. I do worry that maybe kids today aren't as responsible and maybe there are drugs today that are more dangerous.

LT: You were also taking photos when the AIDS epidemic broke out. When did you first become aware of the disease?
There was a friend of ours, Nick Rock, who was a yoga instructor, and the word was that he had gotten really sick with something they didn't understand and within months he died. In those days, that was the most bizarre kind of thing. Young people did not die of unexplained illnesses. And then I remember a friend of mine showing me the first New York Times article that came out with the headline "Gay Cancer." I was so angry when I saw that because I thought, "Christ, this is the straight world trying to repress us again with something that they've made up." I knew that given the vulnerability of our community, and the fragility of our egos, an epidemic like that would be widespread disaster.

LT: How did AIDS change the Pines?
You know, I look back and I wonder how I survived that experience. It was completely pervasive. It wasn't like a bunch of people died in a plane crash and you knew one of the victims. It was everyone. When the diagnosis was made, back then it was a death sentence. Suddenly we found ourselves not at the beach on the weekend but in hospital rooms visiting friends.

LT: What would you like people to take away from the book?
My ultimate dream is that they look at the book and they see the people behind it. They recognize that these are their kids, our friends, and that we were good, bright, beautiful, fun-loving people and that we made contributions that forever changed American culture. But the experience I want them to have is: What was it like? What did it really feel like?

Photographs from Tom Bianchi: Fire Island Pines, Polaroids 1975-1983

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