Photography / Documentary

Rediscovering the polaroids, freedom and passion of Fire Island Pines

[I]n the following excerpt photographer Tom Bianchi tells us how his now iconic book Fire Island Pines, Polaroids 1975-1983 came to be, and what he learnt about love through the process.

“In the mid 70s, I was a young lawyer at Columbia Pictures in Manhattan. I’d moved to New York to be closer to the Pines where I’d taken a house every summer for several years. At an executive conference in Miami, we were given a toy – an SX-70 Polaroid camera. After taking a few pictures of flamingos in the hotel garden, I took my camera to the Pines and started making photographs of our life there. In those days, many of us with Pines beach houses and jobs in New York felt the need to lie about where we’d gotten our tans. “I was at the beach on Long Island,” gave us about 120 miles of heterosexual beach as cover. The story of the Pines was compelling, but because so many of us lived in the closet, photographs posed a threat. They could be used against us. Jobs could be lost. And worse.

I’d lay the instant Polaroids out for everyone to see as I made them. At first I shot the subjects without identity to ensure anonymity for those who needed it, focusing on atmosphere. As time passed, friends became comfortable with the smiles on their faces being recorded. I quickly saw that I had the makings of a book. People who saw what I was doing came to welcome me, camera in hand.

The SX-70’s unique color system created beautiful miniature “paintings” that appealed to my aesthetic sense. I’d never studied photography, so the immediate feedback of the pictures became my teacher. The ease of making the images allowed me to interact with my subjects, free of technical photo making issues. I never set out to be a photographer. I simply wanted to tell the world that we were here and show them what our world looked like. The SX-70 was a perfect instrument for my purpose.

Initially, I didn’t have the courage to ask anyone to do nudes. That changed one late season afternoon in September of 1975. Alone on the beach, I was making pictures of seashells. I looked up to see a man I’d lusted after for years from my New York gym approaching. He asked what I was shooting. I showed him my shell pictures. “You know what you ought to be shooting? We should go back to your place and make dirty pictures.” Deep breath. This was an offer I did not refuse.”

“Whatever we thought we were looking for in the Pines, love is what we hoped for. For an afternoon. For a night. For Life? We drifted in and out of affairs. A T-shirt announced, “I’m deeply involved in a meaningless relationship”. Some loves ended before we wanted. Others we left breaking hearts in the process. But a lesson lurked in each experience. Each season’s end, I’d replay the summer on a solitary walk on the beach. I’d give thanks for new friendships and reflect on romances that ended in disappointment. Our fragile hearts were tempered in the passions of the party.

Toward the end of my time at Columbia Pictures I flew from New York to Los Angeles with the executive who gave me SX-70 Polaroid camera years before. In the course of the flight, he confessed depression over his mistress’s desire for more freedom in their relationship. I counselled, “Just let go.” He asked, “How can you be so wise at your young age?” I said, “I’ve spent many summers at Fire Island. Had I not learned to love with open hands and heart, I’d have done myself in at the end of each season.”

Fire Island Pines, Polaroids 1973-1985 is published by Damiani 

27 June 2018

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