Tom Bianchi Photographed His Gay Paradise Before It Disappeared Forever
Close your eyes for a second and imagine you are at the party of your dreams. Everyone you love and are infatuated with is around you, the music you loved in your teens is playing, and bad trips are not a concept. You dance and you love and you spin and you love some more, and then all of your friends die.
I know it’s harsh, but it’s also sort of what happened to Tom Bianchi in the early 1980s, with the onset of AIDS. It’s also the subject of his latest book, Fire Island Pines - Polaroids 1975-1983—a selection of photos taken in a small part of Long Island called the Pines, that functioned as a kind of IRL utopia for a large community of incredibly beautiful and charismatic gay men in the 1970s.
Tom’s name, by the way, is one of those you should know, because he’s been integral in making the world you live in a nicer place than how you found it. You see Bianchi—who, in the early 70s, also worked as a lawyer in New York and Washington, DC—has spent most of his life fighting AIDS and weird heterosexual attitudes toward gay culture. He is the co-founder of a biotech company researching AIDS medication and, if he feels like it, he can also boast a long catalogue of incredibly affectionate photography, poetry, and video work.
With the release of his new book as an excuse, I called Tom up to talk desire and grow up a little.
VICE: Hi Tom, how are you today?
Tom Bianchi: I’m very good, I just had a lovely breakfast out by the swimming pool. I’m ready to go today.
OK, let’s do it. Shall we start by telling the story of how this book came to be?
Growing up and coming out in Middle America, you had to imagine a world very different to the one you were living in. The world we were living in disregarded us and called us perverts. So the brilliance of Fire Island was that it was built by those people who imagined a different world and set out to create it. We carved out the tiniest little place just for ourselves, where we could be safe and laugh and play with one another on the beach, and not have any negative judgement surrounding us. What that did was attract the best and the brightest gays from all over America—particularly because of its proximity to New York, which was the centre of so much culture, fashion, style, and even film. It was a very glamorous time.
Was the creation of this neighborhood planned or circumstantial?
The island is a 36 mile-long barrier a few miles off the Long Island coast, separated into small communities by extended open sand dunes. The Pines, which is one of these little villages, is a mile-long grid of boardwalks connecting about 600 houses built on telephone pole stilts sunk into the sand. Back then, some real-estate guys got to building on this virgin terrace, and it just so happened that the place began to attract bohemian New Yorkers; writers and artists would come out and live in little shacks. It wasn’t intended for the gay community, but it made sense when it formed to be a home for it.
And you happened to be there with a fancy, new Polaroid camera, too.
I was a lawyer at Columbia Pictures at the time. At an executive conference in Miami, we were given an SX-70 Polaroid camera. It was this little plastic thing, which I took to Fire Island a little while later and started taking pictures of my friends. At the time, a lot of people were still in the closet so, as you can understand, they were extremely wary of having their picture taken. So, the important thing about this camera was that it allowed me to take the picture and a few minutes later put it out on the table for people to take a look. It made everyone immediately more comfortable and I very quickly formed the intention to show the world what a cool, amazing place the capital of Queerdom was. Or the provincial part of it [laughs].
Li’l Thinks - Friends by Kate Carraway
Illustration by Penelope Gazin
I pushed him into a snow bank on the way home from the bar. He was drunk and had to pee and went down, soft like a wool mitten, and then got up, and then I pushed him down again. I hadn’t—this should be “haven’t”—seen this dude in, like, three years, but that—the “pfooo” of a grown-up man falling slow and landing facedown in the fresh snow, the 2 AM winter-empty side-street echo of us scream-laughing, hard—repeats, for me, as something like an advertisement, not for friendship exactly, but more specifically for the corny, syrupy-sweet juvenilia that is what I liked so much about how and who we were when we were together.
Friendship is a constantly self-renewing frontier of human relationships, a Wild West of emotional and temporal adventure times. Without the common and commonly necessary strictures that the lamer side of biology and collective culture and whoever else is set up to dictate sexual, romantic relationships, and without the near-eternal nature of literal families, friendship is expansive and truly wild. It’s the only type of relationship that can run steadily for months or years or ever-afters, without sliding down an emotional valley or being punctured by another person’s need or someone else’s betrayal. Of all the ways for two people to be together, and be in some kind of love, it’s the way that is most defined by genuine, wanted, cohesive closeness—the kind that can only be created by making a choice that isn’t required by law or money or blood or boners, and least of all by obligation. The stuff of great friendships applies to shy kindergarteners sharing a snack as much as it does to Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks watching movies together after dinner.
(Source: Vice Magazine)
Jordan Castro asked if I wanted to go on a four-day reading tour with him, Mallory Whitten, Scott McClanahan, Sam Pink, and Mike Bushnell. I said I did. A reading tour is like a music tour but with writers who know each other from the internet instead of musicians who know each other from bands. I asked everyone to live blog the tour so I could compile our accounts into something at the end. Jordan, Mallory, and Scott emailed me their live-blogs (Jordan’s entire live blog, Mallory’s entire live blog, my entire live blog). Here is what we wrote.
Thursday, September 27, 2012: Columbus, Ohio
Feel very confused about why we stopped at loft apartment of Jordan and Mallory’s friend Andy. Wandered around apartment complimenting things until Mallory drove Sam and I to a pizza place where Mike Bushnell was waiting. Returned to Andy’s with Mike. Jordan said one of us had left a door open and Andy’s cat ran away.
Text from Mom: You sound like you are high or drunk or something. Please don’t be stupid.
Smoked three hits of marijuana from a device that looked like a grocery bag, more hits from a bowl passed around table.
Nauseous. Nodding out a bit. Reading doesn’t start until 11 PM. Incredibly tired. Can’t decide whether I should take more Adderall, drink a Red Bull, or take more Adderall and drink a Red Bull.
Jordan just asked if I was liveblogging. Someone fed me more Adderall. Extremely affected by marijuana and Suboxone maybe.
I didn’t understand something.
These walls look 39 years old.
Megan seems more and more deaf as she smokes weed, completely misunderstanding multiple sentences, seems funny.
I just went into the wrong building looking for the reading. The security guy started walking towards me and shouted into his walkie-talkie: “Intruder in the building. Intruder in the building.”
Needed something to be repeated several times before I understood. Standing next to Mallory while Jordan’s band plays. Sam is behind us and looks wet/feverish.
Despite amount of Xanax I ate, felt very nervous about Sam sweating a lot from drugs.
Guy is belligerently playing jazz drums alone in room where Jordan’s band played.
Person in charge of reading said audience was getting impatient. Feel like I can’t stand up.
Friday, September 28, 2012: Columbus, Ohio to Louisville, Kentucky
Woke up to Scott drinking Busch Light sitting at a table with Sam and Mike who were not drinking Busch Light.
Ate 15mg DXM in backseat on the way to Louisville. Jangled pill bottle between Mallory and Jordan and said “Drug refills? Anyone? Xanax?”
Brooklyn-based photographer Mike de Leon is a frequent contributor to VICE. He loves to focus on the innocence of youth, evocative color, distortion, and natural beauty. The following selected images exemplify the playful nature of his work, as he applies the essence of the yin and yang to two schlubs sitting on foldout chairs.
No-one takes the “…and your enemies closer” rule more seriously than Scandinavian groupie girls. They make Stalin look like Chandler Bing.
Read the rest at Vice Magazine: DOs & DON’Ts - Vice Magazine