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Men in Speedos, Looking for Love :: Bianchi’s ’Fire Island Pines, Polaroids 1975-1983’

by John F. Karr
Saturday Aug 24, 2013

It is unlikely that anyone will write more rewardingly about Fire Island than Tom Bianchi does in the preface to his photographic recollection of the Island's pre-AIDS life, "Fire Island Pines" (Damiani; cloth, $50). It begins as Bianchi's autobiography: how he came to be a photographer, and how he developed the ethos that has informed his work. It was a calling that began on the Island, and his memoir of life there delivers its history and meaning as a place of freedom and joy, sex, drugs, tea dances and, sadly, death. But more importantly, as a place where gay brotherhood and community were built.

The siren's call of Fire Island isn't hard to understand. It's beautiful. And, like the Castro, it was refuge. Bianchi writes, "In the Pines I found a force that gave birth to and nurtured my gay soul. I grew up attracted to males in a hostile world that rejected men like me as queers. I dreamed there might be a place where boys like me could play in the sun, walk on a beach holding hands, and even fall in love." For Bianchi, that place was Fire Island; San Francisco has always been that island for me.

The subheadings of Bianchi's memoir tell you what his easy prose will deliver, from the simple geography of "The Place" to the social history of "Who Were These People," and on to "We Loved To Party." There are sections that detail the sex and the drugs, but more important is the why of it all, which is summed up simply in, "What We Did While Looking for Love."

Bianchi's earliest photos of the boys of Fire Island shielded identity; they might have been created post-Stonewall, but many New York professionals were still closeted. As Bianchi's subjects became comfortable with his photos, and the photos piled up, he recognized their potential as a book. It was subsequently shopped around New York publishers, who uniformly refused it. It was too early, he was told in the early 1980s, to publish a book so queer. The photos were set aside in a box that, 40 years later, has proved to be an invaluable time capsule.

"My book is about the days before the epidemic took our innocence and our lives," Bianchi writes. "My pictures are about the wit, the beauty, the spirit and creative imagination of a generation of social pioneers largely lost."

Bianchi took Polaroids, and there are 350 of them in his book, in 212 pages. They have that tranquil yet sharp color quality that's unique to Polaroids. Most are calm and untroubled, although quite a few do convey the excitement of hordes of sweaty, shirtless men disco-dancing, at the birthing place of today's circuit parties. There are numerous pages of men in Speedos, and men kissing, and even more of what became a Bianchi trademark, lovers in repose. There are nudes and hard-ons, but sexuality doesn't take precedence, nor seem an overt display -- this is simply daily life. Among the men lounging poolside or showering outdoors with a companion, you may recognize some porn stars of the day, like heartthrobs Rod Mitchell and Josh Kincaid.

To the eyes of those less informed -- say, str8 people -- these may seem to be pictures of promiscuity. It was something else to us, though, and we can see in the photos a consciousness of being in on the creation of a gay identity.

I hate to end with a criticism, but the pale, silver-gray typeface may have seemed elegant to the designer (Bianchi's boyfriend), but it's fucking hard to read.

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