’70s and ’80s Fire Island Gay Life Captured by Polaroids

Tom Bianchi

(Warning: This post contains nudity.)

Tom Bianchi is having a pretty good week.

He spoke to Behold while in New York for a book signing and events in conjunction with the recent release of Tom Bianchi: Fire Island Pines Polaroids 1975–1983 published by Damiani.

During breakfast with fellow photographer Bruce Weber, Bianchi and his partner Ben Smales were elated to hear of the Supreme Court’s rulings striking down both DOMA and Prop 8.

For a photographer who has made a career documenting and celebrating gay life, as well as fighting for gay rights, it was certainly a big deal and one that hit close to home. His partner Ben Smales, a British citizen, has been forced to jump through hoops to stay in the United States.

“What an amazing day,” Bianchi said about the June 26 Supreme Court decisions. “The last few years of our life spent getting the visa for him to stay was a ridiculously expensive and wasteful experience.”

Tom and Ben were also planning on taking an annual trip to Fire Island where Bianchi has documented the secluded and magical strip of beach on Long Island for the past 40 years. He’ll even be staying in the same house he lived in and in which he took the Polaroids published in the book.

Tom Bianchi

Tom Bianchi

“Back then we celebrated our 30th birthdays and now we’re celebrating 70th birthdays,” Bianchi said with a laugh about one of the few things that has changed on the island. “The same things are still going on: social networking and people meeting in various creative endeavors, which is what I loved about it.”

During that often-romanticized pre-AIDS period of gay culture, Bianchi used a Polaroid SX-70 camera given to him as a gift while he was a lawyer at Columbia Pictures in Manhattan. Bianchi said the camera was the perfect icebreaker for documenting life that consisted of going to the beach, having lunch parties or enjoying a sexual encounter.

“I could go to a party and throw the pictures down on a table so people could see what I was doing,” Bianchi said. “Basically it was what life looked like to me and what I wanted to show the world at that time. It was a totally hidden world back then and people couldn’t be photographed because of the need for protection at their employment or what have you; this was the place we went to be ourselves out of the world.”

The world came crashing down during the AIDS crisis, a period Bianchi said forced his peers to grow up.

“Suddenly you have to do the unimaginable where you would find yourself in a hospital room saying goodbye to a friend. We lived with the delusion of our immortality and particularly there was a great deal of growing up we did; we became caregivers.”

Tom Bianchi

Tom Bianchi

Tom Bianchi

Initially Bianchi had hoped to publish the book towards the end of the 1970s but was unable to have a publisher get behind it because they found the sexual nature of the images far too risky.

Today, of course, things have changed, and Bianchi has made a career out of images that are often highly sexualized. The book contains 350 photographs, culled down from roughly 800 that had been scanned in preparation for the publication.

Always armed with a camera, Bianchi is frequently recognized and said the attention from the gay community has been wonderful.

“It’s really lovely when you go out into the world at this point in time and you have people thanking you because you helped them come out,” he said. “There has been an enormous amount of gratitude; it’s not bad to have done something in your life that attracts that kind of attention and comment; it’s wonderful.”

He said the dreamy quality to the Polaroids reflected the carefree existence of the 1970s and early ’80s for gay men, but he also wanted to make the rest of the world understand that the gay community didn’t pose any threat.

“The world we grew up in was a very hostile place, and when you look at the arc from there to when DOMA fell … we did that by seducing people into a better view of themselves, and Fire Island was a place where we discovered the power we had to change things … we made that world the way we wanted it to be: a loving, compassionate, fun place, and it’s a spirit I continually encounter today and ultimately the world caught up.”