Fire Island is a thin Atlantic Ocean barrier off the southern shore of New York’s Long Island and home to two thriving gay resort towns. There are no cars or roads. During the 70s, a newly developed area on the island, called the Pines, attracted writers and artists. It wasn’t originally built for the gay community, but it made sense for it to form there, living as and among young bohemians coming out of the city. Growing up queer in the America of that time was different than it is now. Gay people oftentimes had to hide and feared shame and violence if they were to come forward. The Pines provided an escape from that reality. Life on the island was unburdened and free: “[It] is a place of rituals, where dinners, tea-dances, and sex parties rhyme in the imagination with the rituals of medieval Japan or Versailles,” Edmund White wrote.
When the ’80s came along, a dark wave rolled towards the island. The carefree, hedonistic paradise was swept away by the onset of the AIDS crisis, taking the lives of people like Paul Thek and Peter Hujar, both frequent visitors of the island. This was a stark shift in the attitude towards the island and towards themselves. Everyone had to realize that they were not invincible.
Matthew Leifheit is a photographer with a history of examining spaces. Providence, Key West, or the crowd surrounding New York City’s Freedom Tower, Leifheit offers examinations of the collaborative presence of places and their inhabitants. While his early work was photojournalistic, he continues to push his work into uncharted territories. Leifheit is a recent Yale graduate, where he studied under Gregory Crewdson, an influence for a new wave of photographers who are not only looking for truth in reality but also in constructed environments. Leifheit’s first solo exhibition, "Fire Island Night," at East Williamsburg’s Deli Gallery, constitutes the preliminary poetic height of his work.
The first group of images shows a triptych of biblical appeal. A monolithic white pillar, dark clouds towering behind a church-like structure, nude men leaning down from a balcony in a panoramic photograph reminiscent of Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgement.” The images radiate quiet power and set the subconscious tone for what's to come.
Pictures made inside the Belvedere, a clothing-optional guest house for men, feel like recollections of French Rococo, including golden staircases, royal coloring, and playful, nude bodies. Renaissance and Baroque were influenced by religion, Rococo was about decadence. And while Leifheit’s images are resisting a clear definition, they carry both lighthearted shallowness and religious gravity. In one image, two subjects lounge on a luxurious bed, in another, one subject is squeezing into a room window, shadows obscuring their face while the other sits on the bed seemingly lost, reminiscent of "Nan and Brian in Bed" of Nan Goldin's Ballad of Sexual Dependency.
The exhibition shows a strong narrative arch, maybe tied together through the themes of sin and redemption or just the unstoppable progress of the night. Fire devours the picture of what seems like a priest, opening up to an energetic and inescapable scene. Red lights and blurred bodies merge into a frantic display of a night which could barely exist together with the existence of the outside. “Everyone would love and dance until they found someone to share the bed with that night,” said Tom Bianchi in an interview with Vice.
But even in the outside world, the play continues. Leifheit photographs nude men, faces, moisture, and bloody noses. All would be enshrouded in darkness if it wasn't for the brief flash of light coming from his camera. Every time Leifheit's flash releases, theatrical scenes unfold. The performance seemingly not meant to be a public one, but the short bursts of revealing light readily welcomed nonetheless. Bodies paired with dead fish and dying flowers accentuate the physicality of the experience but also point towards the deterioration of the Island; maybe they are a metaphor for its history. But if death is a metaphor for its history, the embrace of two men underneath a crashing wave has to be one as well. Strength and self-reflection are barely fostered by peaceful waters.
"Fire Island Night" is far from being a secular body of work. But instead of getting lost in the symbolism, Matthew Leifheit manages to create a duality between his documentation and the ecclesiastical guideposts. The photographs, nestled in black frames, vividly printed on metal, seem like a portal to times gone, told not only through history but also the teary-eyed recollections of someone longing for a past both tragic and dear.
See more of Matthew's work on his website.
Images used with permission of Matthew Leifheit