Photographing the sexual hedonism of Fire Island

Matthew Leifheit captured the iconic queer spot and its inhabitants.

by Douglas Greenwood
30 March 2022, 10:40am

The photographer Matthew Leifheit spent seven years embedded in the culture of Fire Island, the infamous New York beachside spot embraced by gay men at the turn of the 20th century. What he captured was beautiful: erotic pictures of a culture long-considered taboo and old-fashioned, but that remains, unknown to many, alive and well. “I have been accused of being a pornographer in the past,” Matthew says. “That’s perfectly fine with me.”

The series, now released in a book titled To Die Alive (Damiani Books), started accidentally. Around the same time he went to Fire Island on an assignment in 2014, he had shot a series of portraits of his friend Hudson and his boyfriend. “All of the film came out really underexposed, so that you only saw little glimpses of their skin; moisture and low highlights.” The images inspired a return journey to Fire Island. This time, his camera captured the area and its inhabitants with the same evocative, dark stylings.

men pose nude on top of a gay venue on fire island

Think of Fire Island and the first thing that comes to mind, more often than not, are “muscle gays” in jockstraps, but its artistic roots are deeper than that. Another epiphany moment for Matthew came with the discovery of PaJaMa’s work, a queer photography trio who, in the 40s, took pictures of themselves on the island, often with their bodies contorted into obscure poses or with absurd set-ups. They were friends with Jean Cocteau and the surrealists. It added a new layer to Matthew’s deeper understanding of the island: “It was both very exciting and also kind of dark and complicated.”

There is a timelessness to his work. On first inspection, these faces and scenarios seem plucked from history, archival imagery brought back to life. But if you look closely, modern hallmarks come to the fore: a neon jockstrap, a man wearing a pair of modern, bright white sneakers and nothing more. In reality, the oldest image is from 2014, it’s the ideas and the archaeology of this place that feels historical.

a nude man scales a tree on fire island

That’s an ambiguity alluded to in the epigraph of the book, which features both an excerpt from Andrew Holleran’s seminal pre-AIDS gay novel Dancer from the Dance, partially set on the island, and a line from Ariana Grande’s gay anthem “Break Free”. (The book’s title is a direct excerpt from that track.) “I do feel like there's a strange similarity to what's going on on the island [now, compared to] the 1970s,” Matthew says. Back then, “there was a kind of hedonism. People had these very hard won sexual freedoms that they were exercising as a political act.” Today, the availability of PrEP and anti-HIV medications in New York has helped turn the dial back to that time. “There was something that had gone away in the 80s and 90s, with the beginning of the AIDS crisis, but in fact, it's kind of alive and well. I was interested in the mirroring of those two periods.”

The book is split into three distinct chapters and locations: The Ice Palace, a gay club on the island; The Sunken Forest, a boardwalk woodland that doubles as a cruising ground; and finally, Talisman, a once-upon-a-time affluent beach resort that’s since shuttered. “I wanted [the book’s narrative] to be a cruise out of the built environment, through the meat rack cruising ground in the forests and then out into the ocean, the most primordial and timeless thing,” he says. The shoot lasted for so long that the structure went slightly awry, but it was brought back together, courtesy of Matthew’s friend and editor Elisabeth Biondi, in the book’s final edit.

The men in the book were cast in a myriad of different ways. Some were sourced through gay dating apps, others Matthew found through old-fashioned posters around town and in gay bars that read: “Nudes needed. Photographer looking for models.” The majority of his subjects were residents on the island, rather than temporary transplants from the city. Occasionally, visiting artists appear, like the playwright Jeremy O. Harris. There were two muses, in particular: Jack Waters and Peter Cramer, two artists who’ve been visiting the island for decades. They are some of the few subjects to appear more than once.

To Die Alive, a near-decade-long effort, captures less of a moment in time and more of the spirit of Fire Island; a spirit that, as gentrification and wider acceptance sets in, may be losing its potency. But the people Matthew has captured remain dedicated to a way of queer life many are willing to let go of. Matthew’s work, he says, is about “the cost of assimilation into the mainstream, and the particularities of gay culture that are eroding in the face of mainstream acceptance.” These pictures play a part in reminding us of the significance of carnal queer history — even the parts that make many uncomfortable.

a man in a nightclub on fire island
nude men across the rocks of a beach
jeremy o. harris on fire island portrait
a naked man on a beach on fire island
a nude man at night in a forest on fire island
a nude man in a forest on fire island
men on fire island beach

To Die Alive by Matthew Leifheit is available to purchase now via Damiani Editore.

All images courtesy Matthew Leifheit/Damiani Editore

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