Dreamlike photos of a famous gay Mecca

Artist Matthew Leifheitthe new book, die aliveexplores his evolving relationship with the notorious gay mecca of fire islandwhich lies off the south coast of Long Island, east of New York City.

After first visiting in 2015 – for a VICE story about generational change in the island’s gay scene – Leifheit returned in 2017 and began photographing those he met there, the Famous island festivalspublic and private sexual spaces and finally, quite unexpectedly, its landscape.

The project ended up taking five years, during which Leifheit photographed at night using moonlight, high-speed film and long exposures to create a turbulent nighttime view of a place facing enormous cultural change. and environmental. The book, which encapsulates all of this work in just 77 images, combines intense portraits, stormy group photos, and landscapes to create a complex image of an ever-changing place and Leifheit’s shifting feelings about it.

VICE: Do you remember discovering Fire Island for the first time?
Mathieu Leifheit:
I think the first time I heard of Fire Island was in an NPR story by David Sedaris about meeting this guy who said, “Have you been to Fire Island? as shorthand for “Are you gay?”. I went there in 2015 for a VICE story titled something like “Can young gays enjoy Fire Island?“While it’s naturally very beautiful, it’s also a bit sleazy. It’s so intensely gay and homo-social, everyone is running around in jockstraps. At that time, I was thinking, “I’m not that kind of gay.”

What led you to photograph?
When I was in college, I started looking at photographs of the collective Pyjamas. They spent a lot of time in Saltaire, which is not the gay part of the island, in the 1940s making surreal photos of the eerie landscape, including the maritime holly forest made up of those twisted hollies resembling bonsai. I went back there in 2017 and started to photograph seriously. I have mostly photographed there since then.

How has the project evolved over time?
I think at first I was channeling my own perception of Fire Island, it was more of a cultural fantasy of the place. I photographed a lot at this famous underwear party at the Ice Palace Bar where you get a discount on the ticket if your underwear has no butt. Over time, I sort of established my own relationship with the place. It was about my experience of the people I met, and ultimately the landscape.

Can you tell me about more complex group images? It’s a totally different aspect of the book.
I was really obsessed with making these complex, choreographed, multi-figure compositions. To photograph a group of people in a way where I could direct them. I’ve never done this before, and Fire Island is a place where more people are open to participating in some kind of performance… I wouldn’t go there with a flash and try to take some candid photos. It’s not who I am and it feels overwhelming. I felt like staging pictures was the only way to show the place. I needed people to be part of the process, bringing a sense of performance to it.

There is also a darkness in the work and in the general atmosphere of the book…
Part of the problem with the island is that it is threatened with erosion – due to global warming. The beach changes shape every year, which is beautiful compared to ideas of queer identity, but it seems like a place where you can kind of predict its demise. It is a fragile ecosystem.

A park ranger friend told me that the landscape peaked in the 1970s and is now in decline. I think it’s interesting that queers, which is the identity category I belong to, also – some would say – peaked in the 1970s. Gay male culture was begins to thrive following hard-won sexual and legal freedoms, just before the AIDS crisis hit. I think it’s interesting that Fire Island – which was such a thriving site – has an ecosystem that reflects the evolution of my people.

There’s also the cultural threat to Fire Island, isn’t there?
All of the photography I’ve done in the last few years is really about gay culture, and more specifically what I call “queer culture”. Not everyone in the book is a man, but most people in these spaces, like cruise underwear parties, are men. It is overwhelmingly a homo-social space. Many of the photos were taken at the Belvedere Hotel, which is a male-only guesthouse.

I think that young people have less and less recourse to these rigid terms of identity, to these categories. They go against homosexuality and progress. I think that’s a good thing. But there will also be a cultural loss that will occur, when homosexuals who were so subversive that half a century ago they were illegal, will now be seen as a privileged group, almost aligned with straight culture. I think these spaces are going to go through a lot of changes. It is a necessary and important change, but there will be a cultural loss.

The work has a kind of hallucinatory, full feeling. It’s extremely intense.
I think that’s what all my work has in common: an almost too strong emotional intensity. The look back is a bit too intense. That’s how my job is campy: it’s so overworked it’s almost funny. A friend of mine called me “a gay nightmare artist”, and I feel like that’s true.

It’s rare to see such a candid view of the sexual side of the place.
Much of what people know about Fire Island comes from Tom Bianchi’s photos, which were actually photos of the clone culture of the 70s. Homosexuals adopted a kind of uniform, based on a working-class look in order to feel that they could belong to a culture that had rejected them. Many of these older photos are of muscle men in Speedos posing in the sun, of course there is darkness. I look at these pictures and I think “all these people are dead” [during the AIDS crisis]. It’s no longer transgressive to show a hot guy posing in the sun. I don’t really look at hot stereotypical people. I don’t watch clones.

Do you feel the book is celebratory overall, or more melancholic, dwelling on a place that is changing in many ways?
I think it’s about me trying to watch something that makes me very complicated because of my own experience of sexuality. A lot of it comes down to generational priorities, but also the fact that I’m aging as a queer person – it’s such an intergenerational place. The book is neither a celebration nor a critique, I hope it conveys my own complicated feelings about the place.

I feel like the perfect place for this book is at a Barnes & Noble in the Midwest, where a teenager – someone who didn’t know this world existed – finds it and has this complicated experience of sexuality . I feel like if someone masturbates to it and feels weird afterwards, it would be a hit.

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