Tom Bianchi’s new book 63 E. 9th Street. NYC Polaroids 1975–1983 offers an intimate window into the life of gay men in 1970s New York
After discovering the Pines on Fire Island in 1972, Tom Bianchi found himself drawn into New York’s flourishing gay scene which emerged in the years following Stonewall.
“I was having an affair with the playwright Edward Albee, which brought me in and out of New York,” Bianchi says from his home in Los Angeles. “I thought New York was too difficult a place to live – too expensive and too crazy – but my contacts lead me to imagine I could live there and be a New Yorker. What was thrilling was the sexual availability of the gay community at that time: we were just bursting at the seams.”
In 1975, Bianchi moved to the heart of Greenwich Village and took a job as in-house counsel at Columbia Pictures. That year, Bianchi received a Polaroid SX-70 camera during a corporate conference and began documenting the lives of his friends and lovers in the early years of Gay Liberation – images which are now compiled in the new book, 63 E. 9th Street. NYC Polaroids 1975–1983.
The perfect companion to Bianchi’s earlier monograph, Fire Island Pines. Polaroids 1975-1983, this new publication offers an intimate window into the life of gay men in 1970s New York, who were suddenly free to discover and celebrate their sexuality on their own terms. “Before Stonewall, we really didn’t know if we were alone in the world and [felt] destined to live a lonely life. In New York, post-Stonewall, there was a shift in consciousness from despair to joy and we embraced it,” Bianchi says.
“We were kids from the American heartland, which was an insanely dysfunctional place to be. New York, [and places] like Fire Island, were our world. Not only were we meeting people who were physically attractive, but we also discovered gyms and were taking care of ourselves physically. I think a lot of gay people, like myself, saw ourselves as the kid who got picked last for the sports team during gym and not as good as other boys. Suddenly, we flipped that and became our own fantasies for one another.”
For Bianchi, those fantasies were rooted in 1950s and 60s physique magazines which he discovered during puberty. “That work was subject to censorship but the Polaroids allowed me to go full steam ahead. I could do what I wanted and nobody could stop me,” Bianchi says. “I wanted to play out fantasies I had in adolescence. That’s why there are posing straps – I wanted to start with them, remove them, and be free of that restraint.”
The 9th Street apartment became a place where Bianchi discovered the artist he always was. “I had a fantasy from childhood about being a painter but there was no such thing in my environment. The only painter was Jackson Pollock. I made a drip and dribble throw painting in the basement of our house in Chicago and my father got so angry with me,” he says.
“He was a physically violent alcoholic man. He chased me upstairs and I locked myself in the bathroom. He was pounding on the door telling, ‘I’m not letting you grow up to be some fag artist in a coldwater flat in Greenwich Village.’ And this was way before I imagined to moving to New York!”
Bianchi did not set out to become an artist; he simply made art until the forces of fate conspired to change his life in the late 1970s, when Betty Parsons and Carol Dreyfus placed him in a couple of group exhibitions before offering him a solo show. “You don’t say no to that. I decided OK, I’m going to go for it,” Bianchi says. “I always thought the Polaroids might finance my painting career, and as it turned out they didn’t.”
Bianchi, then 35, left behind a job as Senior Counsel of Columbia Pictures in charge of litigation. And though he didn’t publish the Polaroids until decades after they were made, Bianchi continued to make the work, determined to document the early days of the queer revolution before the advent of AIDS. “We were innocents. We’d help each other through the heartbreaks of relationships ending because while we were having a great deal of sex we were all pretty much fixated on the idea of one true love — and in the meantime if we didn’t, we were going to have the best time we could possible have,” Bianchi recalls.
“I look at these Polaroids and so many of these people are gone. I went through intimate experiences with hospitals and deathbed scenes. It was a stunning transformation. Now, as I look back I realised that I did not want us to disappear. I wanted the world to know what had been because I wanted the world to feel the sense of loss that I felt. We don’t get to do what we do by ourselves. We do it in conjunction with other hearts, minds, and souls.”