A Trip Down Memory Walk

An exclusive preview of photographer Tom Bianchi’s new art book Fire Island Pines: Polaroids 1975–1983.
May 24, 2013

Part of the allure of Fire Island is the element of escapism that the idyllic stretch of gay beach offers. And at no period were The Pines or Cherry Grove more idyllic than the pre-HIV/AIDS days of the late-’70s. That scantly documented time period is the subject of Tom Bianchi’s new book of old photos, Fire Island Pines: Polaroids 1975–1983. 

After acquiring his first camera at a work conference in Miami, Bianchi quickly realized that something special was happening in The Pines, where he spent his summers. “It was a unique world, essentially unknown, and I wanted guys like myself to know that your life was not going to be a miserable, sad experience,” Bianchi, who now lives on the West Coast, says. “This is what it could be and this is what we were making,” he recalls. “I realized pretty early on that I had a book in the making.” 
The photographs are especially noteworthy considering that they document a time during which much of what we now consider mainstream gay culture was literally invented—and document a place that Bianchi says looks remarkably similar to The Pines of today, due in part to the fact that by the early 1970s much of the community was already built up. “The Polaroids were documenting the spirit of the community and that’s what I was mostly interested in,” says Bianchi. “We made that. We made that place.” 
As a preview to the book—a nostalgic trip down memory lane for those that were there and a look back at The Pines of yesteryear for those that weren’t—we take an exclusive peek at some of Bianchi’s photography, complete with his commentary.

(At top) “We used to nickname all the houses on the beach. That was called Broadway Maintenance. It starts in the first picture and continues halfway through the second. That house was owned by people who did office cleaning on Broadway. The house next to [it that] you see sticking up taller, that house was Angelo Donghia’s. That house was a Horace Gifford design for Angelo. You might be too young to know these things, but Angelo was like the big deal. He was famous and his company continues to this day. The father of eclecticism.”


“Everything comes around again. Some of the pictures are fairly clear. The longer hair is a real tip off. The lack of tattoos speaks to this time. But if he were alive 300 years ago he would still have the same facial structure.” 


“One of my favorite parts of the day was to come back from the beach, take a shower and stick your face in a fresh towel. The picture [above] is [drag queen] Sybil Bruncheon. His [boy] name is John. He was a young actor when we met on Christopher Street one night and we became friends. John had this exquisite physique. We were just being bad boys that day.” 


“I’m the one with the furry chest and the light orange looking bathing suit and the green shorts being pushed down. I can’t remember specifically what I was thinking at that moment, but the guy next to me is Harold Gates. Just a complete doll. He was an early AIDS casualty. I can see the shadow of the guy taking the picture in the bottom. Maybe it was something as stupid and silly as that we had gotten these new bathing suits and were showing them off.”   


“It was the Sandpiper. It had kind of a low ceiling, it was funky, it was cool. Oh, I think people were excited [to see the Pavilion replace the Sandpiper]. The idea that the dance hall was being expanded was a good idea. I don’t think there was a lot of gnashing of the teeth about preserving a historic building or anything like that.”

Tom Bianchi’s Fire Island Pines: Polaroids 1975–1983 is available in bookstores now. Visit ArtBook.com for more info.