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Once On This Island

Tom Bianchi, the gay erotic photographer whos now 63 and lives in Palm Springs, remembers the first time he photographed a naked man. It was 1975; he was a young lawyer for Columbia Pictures in New York City, and a week or so after Labor Day he went out to the quieted-down Fire Island Pines to recover from hernia surgery. He brought along a then-new-to-the-market Polaroid SX-70 hed been given at work. A newcomer to the camera, he was taking pictures of shells on the beach when this guy whom Id often seen at my gym in Manhattan -- a demigod, V-shaped torso, beautifully muscled -- stopped and said, What are you taking pictures of? Bianchi recalls. I showed him, and he looked at me and said, You should take me back to your house to make dirty pictures. It was, like, Be still, my heart. I told him his invite couldnt have come at a worse time, that I had stitches and theyd shaved my crotch. He said, You have a shaved crotch? I think thats hot. They went back to Bianchis house, and Bianchi snapped all afternoon. They had very panicky, hot sex, because I was afraid I was going to burst my stitches, then the guy left. I never saw him again, says Bianchi, but he was the guardian angel who called me forth. Over the next five summers Bianchi took roughly 6,000 Polaroids of hundreds of gay men -- friends, lovers, and near-strangers -- who were posing, partying, or having group sex in the idyllic disco- and Quaalude-fueled setting of pre-AIDS Fire Island. In that more closeted time, few let him shoot their faces directly -- especially, he says, those who feared losing high-powered jobs. Still, Bianchi brought his camera everywhere, popping out pictures at poolside parties and midday orgies in the secluded dunes of the infamous Meat Rack, which separates the Pines from Cherry Grove. Id throw the Polaroids out on a table so that people could see exactly what it was I was doing, he says. I was like one of those anthropologists who the gorillas realize isnt a threat, so they let him hang out with them, he says, laughing. Once, he snapped pics at an alfresco sex party he participated in that was organized by Casey Donovan, the blond beauty famous at that time for his star turn in the 1971 gay porn landmark Boys in the Sand. When plans to publish a book of the images fell through, Bianchi stored them in one large box. He went on to bury a longtime lover (David Peterson, who died of AIDS complications in 1988) and received his own HIV diagnosis shortly thereafter, but he benefited from the lifesaving new medications of the 1990s and became a successful photographer of beautiful naked men. More than 25 years later, Bianchi showed the Fire Island images to Rich Young, who owns Palm Springs Exposure Gallery. Thirty of the 1970s images now hang at the gallery in an ongoing exhibit, and more are at Bianchi says hes back in talks to have the images collected in a book. He lost touch with many of the men in the pictures but estimates that more than half of them have since died of AIDS. I remember sitting down with a friend on the beach, he recalls. He said, My three best friends are dying right now. I cant take it. Bianchi erupts into sobs. He didnt make it either. The sun was shining, and youd walk by a house where all six people had died the previous winter. I kept a prayer list, but when I got to 200 I had to stop. Yet when he looks at the images now, they dont sadden him but elate him. I cant help but be captivated by the sense of joy thats so evident, he says. Thats what Fire Island was then -- a fabulous party that nurtured us and sent us back out into the world as happier men. Its very important for me to tell this story. Send a letter to the editor about this article.
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