Tom Bianchi: Fire Island Pines: Polaroids 1975-1983by Tom Bianchi
Growing up in the 1950s, Tom Bianchi would head into downtown Chicago and pick up 25-cent “physique” magazines at newsstands. In one such magazine, he found a photograph of bodybuilder Glenn Bishop on Fire Island. “Fire Island sounded exotic, perhaps a name made up by the photographer,” he recalls in the preface to his latest monograph. “I had no idea it was a real place. Certainly, I had no idea then that it was a place I would one day call home.” In 1970, fresh out of law school, Bianchi began traveling to New York, and was invited to spend a weekend at Fire Island Pines, where he encountered a community of gay men. Using an SX-70 Polaroid camera, Bianchi documented his friends’ lives in the Pines, amassing an image archive of people, parties and private moments. These images, published here for the first time, and accompanied by Bianchi’s moving memoir of the era, record the birth and development of a new culture. Soaked in sun, sex, camaraderie and reverie, Fire Island Pines conjures a magical bygone era.
Tom Bianchi was born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago and graduated from Northwestern University School of Law in 1970. He became a corporate attorney, eventually working with Columbia Pictures in New York, painting and drawing on weekends. His artwork came to the attention of Betty Parsons and Carol Dreyfuss and they gave him his first one-man painting show in 1980. In 1984, he was given his first solo museum exhibition at the Spoleto Festival. After Bianchi’s partner died of AIDS in 1988, he turned his focus to photography, producing Out of the Studio, a candid portrayal of gay intimacy. Its success led to producing numerous monographs, including On the Couch, Deep Sex and In Defense of Beauty.
For decades, the pictures in that book lay in boxes at the photographer’s Palm Springs, Calif., residence; when he finally retrieved them, Mr. Bianchi explained last week, he was startled to discover a trove recording not merely hundreds of muscular bodies, but a record of a forgotten place and time.
True, the images he created focus largely on buff young men disporting themselves. But they also capture something far less obvious: the exuberance of a culture in transformation, of a generation discovering itself in what Mr. Bianchi termed “a gay Brigadoon.”
“I was the young, lonely gay boy in the Midwest who had no idea paradise existed,” Mr. Bianchi said. “Everything about the Pines was new, the very idea of a place where you could play on the beach and hold hands with a guy and be with like-minded people and dance all night with a man.”
The period his book documents, in the last moments before a random virus laid waste to a generation of gay men, “was a very sexy and a very sexual time.”
“But it wasn’t a shallow experience whatsoever,” he said. “I met some pretty incredible people. We certainly loved.”
That celebration, of course, involved easy sex, which is imprinted throughout the book in the group shots of beautiful men who seemed to live primarily in and out of Speedos. "Being a sort of horny devil, I can remember a beautiful figure emerging from the surf, saying ‘Hi,' getting a smile back, and finding your life transformed in a moment," says Bianchi. "It was about the connectivity. I tried to give a sense of the world we lived in. I found very strong connections between us, our style and the placeyou would never attempt a community anywhere but in a place that beautiful."
Bianchi took a prototype of the book to a major publisher in 1980; editors loved it but the sales team blanched and quashed the project. In the years since, Bianchi became known as one of the premier horny devils of male-physique photography via a number of art books devoted to the classic nude. "But I always knew the time would come for the Fire Island book," he says. "I hope it's available to a younger audience who can see how gay freedom started and what it looked like." Bianchi takes a freighted pause. "I can't say we martyred ourselves. We had no choice. The world was too beautiful, and we had too much fun."
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That is probably the most amazing collection of pictures that I have seen. Being a fan of Palaroid instantaneity and late 70s gay as the era, I find this book simple, touching and endlessly melancholic, celebrating the total freedom of the time and carelessness of the moment.