A Lost Utopia: Stanley Stellar’s Portraits at New York’s “Gay Piers”

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The Piers exhibition Stanley Stellar photographer
Rick Daccard, 1981Photography by Stanley Stellar

Ahead of a new exhibition at Kapp Kapp gallery, photographer Stanley Stellar reminisces about gay life at the much-mythologised New York piers in the 70s and 80s

Stanley Stellar has photographed gay men in New York City for just over 45 years. “In 1976 I’d been part of Gay Liberation,” he recalls. “I thought we, gay men, were worth noting, that we were worth being looked at with affection and respect. Nobody did that. We had no rights. I didn’t accept it. I just didn’t fucking buy it.”

Now, for its third solo exhibition with Stellar, Kapp Kapp are showing a suite of unseen photographs of the Christopher Street Piers, marking the opening of its new, expanded, Tribeca gallery. Stanley Stellar: The Piers (1976-1983) opens on January 15. The American photographer’s documentation of New York gay life is, says Kapp Kapp, “almost unrivalled.”

“It’s a show about three gay piers,” Stellar explains. “They were immense, abandoned, shed-like buildings. It was a hostile world. In the city, gay men could only meet at night, in the dark, in clubs or in bars. The piers were free. You could take off your clothes and lay in the sun, nude, with other guys looking for sex, right in Manhattan. And the police didn’t care. It was safe. We became a city within a city, and it was based on freedom and sunlight. There was nowhere else we could have done that. None.”

One shot is called Pier Fuck (1983) and another called Danny, September (1982) – it depicts a man about my age, naked and tanned. His gaze is aimed straight at the camera and has the same weight as the mild, cloudless sky that hung over Manhattan at 08:45 on 11 September 2001. “In 1982 we all read about this science fiction death that was happening only to gay men and some IV drug users,” Stellar remembers. “Aids. The city demolished the piers in ’83 or ’84.”

But Robert Feeling Free (1983) banishes foresight, his cock in a ring in the sun, flinging his head back as if casting away the old order of things; as if there will be no more death. “Sex is an undeniable part of who we are,” says Stellar. “It’s the only thing we all have in common. It’s part of our culture. We’ve brought that to art. That’s the thread.”

The work, above all, is a testament to the ways in which gay men live. “Being gay also means being human,” Stellar concludes. “And I’m really good at that part. There’s not much documentation of gay men’s lives. How do we do that? How did they live? What happened to them? Were they happy? That, coming from that time in my chronology, I wanted it. I wanted it all.” 

Stanley Stellar: The Piers opens on 15th January at Kapp Kapp, 86 Walker Street, NY.