Unbridled hedonism, superlative beauty, endless sunshine. This is the world of Tom Bianchi’s Fire Island Pines, a barrier island off the coast of Long Island, New York that has been a holiday haven for the gay community since the sixties. Every summer, muscle-bound young men make the trip to this sliver of beach and boardwalk to experience parties, drugs, and sexual freedoms otherwise unknown, and between 1975 and 1983, Bianchi used a SX-70 Polaroid to document their days filled with carefree pleasures, far from the censure of the wider world. Kept in a box for the past two decades, this new book, published by Damiani, is the first time these images have been collated together, as a beautiful, erotic and deeply moving record of a society living entirely for the moment, chillingly unaware of the inexorable onset of AIDS.
Bianchi came to the Pines as a lawyer, only bringing along a camera when he was given one as a toy at an executive conference. But soon he was recording his life on the sands and bungalows of Fire Island, shooting pictures of everything from landscapes and beach views to crowds of friends mucking about and filthily erotic shots of his lovers. Muscles ripple and glisten, trunks are tight, moustaches bristle, cowboy denim and boots abound. Those three gods of the 80s – parties, sex and physical perfection – were worshipped unashamedly in the Pines and Bianchi captures all three in dazzling style. Yet he also captures something intimate and unique; amid the lust, the posturing and the Schwarzenegger physiques, filter moments of supreme tenderness. Two men, entwined in a hammock, the one bent over the other’s foot removing a splinter; a man idly sprinkling sand onto another’s foot; a couple floating on adjoining inflatables sharing a passionate kiss.
"Bianchi captures something intimate and unique; amid the lust, the posturing and the Schwarzenegger physiques, filter moments of supreme tenderness."
Looking back, these pictures of paradise are heartbreakingly poignant, a vignette of life about to be engulfed in the horror of AIDS. Bianchi lost his partner David to the disease, among many, many of the friends preserved in the pages. The images remained in their box for so long as revisiting them was too painful, a return to a world now dashed to ash. Yet, in this work, the photographer has created a joyful and unique “in memoriam” not just to the individuals lost, but also to a way of life that marked a sexual awakening and liberation for so many, including he himself. In his own words, 'That's what Fire Island was then – a fabulous party that nurtured us and sent us back out into the world as happier men.”
Tom Bianchi’s Fire Island Pines: Polaroids 1975-1983 is out now, published by Damiani.
Text by Tish Wrigley