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Published September 3, 2023

Fire Island Pines at 70: Pictures Worth A Thousand Words

By Matthew Herskowitz

Matthew Herskowitz is a journalist based in NYC and works in reality TV and documentary development.

The history of Fire Island Pines is one steeped in conflicting mythos. Geological purists might date the origin of Fire Island to be concurrent with the formation of Long Island between 25 and 50,000 years ago, yet even this is in doubt. Fire Island is a barrier island, an impossibly thin sliver of silken dunes and marshland. The origin of the Pines is, similarly, in doubt; some date it to 1953, when the Home Guardian company transformed a 7-mile stretch of what was then swampland into neatly cordoned lots; others tout Peggy Fears as it’s true birth mother, the eccentric Broadway actress bringing the quintessential Old Hollywood glamor and, by proxy, gay artifice with the erection of the Pines Yacht Club and Hotel. To tell the complete history of the Pines is to document the congregation of gay people, artists, and derelicts through the McCarthy era, Flower Power, the Golden Age of the 70s, the scourge of HIV/AIDS, the genesis of Black Lives Matter, and the codification of gay marriage.

Pines 70th Photo Booklet, Produced by Ben Tousley and John Dempsey, logo and artwork by Bráulio Amado

Pines history is an oral history; whether you’ve been going to the island for five years or fifty, everyone seems to have a different set of stories: a run-in with a celebrity, a blowout fight with someone in your share, a first love, and of course, the loss of a friend.

For the 70th anniversary of Fire Island Pines, archivists and Pines historians John Dempsey and Ben Tousley took up an impossible task; to condense 70 years of the Pines into a short book of photography. The result is a visual journey and an untold history of the many people who passed through and stuck around the Pines.

Open a drawer in the home of an eccentric art critic, and what do you think you might find? Some polaroids of dinner parties past, a news clipping, poppers, some loose jewelry, perhaps. That’s exactly what the work of critic and curator Vince Aletti calls to mind his booklet, The Drawer, a kaleidoscopic view of his life in the East Village, where each of the pages appears as though someone took a snapshot of an open drawer. John and Ben take this concept and run with it, elevate it, and shape it into something more intentional. Lines transcend adjacent photographs to create a sense of continuity, the border in one memory tracing the wooded panel of a deck in another.

While I could spend hours talking about it, it’s perhaps best to take a visual journey through the years below. This is far from a comprehensive view of the book, and that the book gives us a mere snippet of the glorious history of the Pines.

Paul Cadmus, Jared French, Margaret French formed an artist collective called “PaJaMa”, in Fire Island, 1930s

“Prehistoric Pines”

Before being developed into the more recognizable Fire Island Pines, the island was hardly more than a collection of wooden shacks scattered along an idyllic landscape. Yet, even before it became a destination, queer artists still found inspiration in the barren stretch of land. Paul Cadmus met Jared French and his wife Margaret in the 1930s, the three forming a photographic collective called PaJaMa ("Paul, Jared, and Margaret"). They photographed each other sunning in Provincetown, Fire Island, and Saltaire, passing around Margaret’s Leica to create works of stunning surrealism; the backdrop of a placid yet barren environment made them appear as though they were vacationing at the end of the world, and their strange, angular positioning would come to be influential in the field. Cadmus was one of the first openly queer artists who depicted unabashed homoeroticism and sensuous male bodies, influencing the likes of gay photographers like George Tooker and Robert Mapplethorpe. His photographs also portray the Pines as a place of refuge, a well-kept secret from traditional society.

David Hockney by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1976

Artists on Artists

The Pines later provided the ideal backdrop for the post-Stonewall idealism that characterized gay life in the 1970s. The island became something of a cultural exchange, drawing hordes of emerging and already-established gay painters, architects, photographers, and writers. English painter David Hockney, one of the most iconic 20th century British artists who became renowned for pop art style, still frequents the Pines. Here he is photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe. Mapplethorpe documented his many trips to the Pines; in the summer of 1972, he would meet famed art curator Sam Wagstaff, who would become his mentor and key to the much-needed network that would enable Mapplethorpe to elevate his work and platform. At the same time, a young Tom Bianchi (a contemporary of Mapplethorpe) began photographing gay couples galavanting around the island on his Polaroid SX-70 camera, his sun-bleached photographs creating a visual touchstone of the gay hamlet that could never have foretold the scourge of HIV/AIDs that would sweep through that very community only a few years later. Bianchi, Hockney, Wagstaff, and Mapplethorpe represent only a microcosm of the extraordinary network of queer artists that sought out the Pines as a refuge from the hustle and bustle of city life.

Scott Bromley and friends, late 1970s, polaroid by Tom Bianchi


Scott Bromley (above, far left), an architect and longtime resident of the Pines, exemplifies the enduring spirit of gay community. Bromley and his business partner Jerry Caldari have taken up some of the most extraordinary visions of architecture in the Pines. They were also contemporaries of Horace Gifford, who helped create the quintessential “Pines modernism” of many of the homes characterized by extraordinary wooden pavilions with towering windows, each unique in their shape to the point where they’d be identifiable to residents and visitors alike. Like many of Bromley’s contemporaries and friends, Gifford unfortunately succumbed to AIDS-related causes in 1992. Yet, his legacy is firmly entrenched in the architectural world and for New Yorkers looking to build beach homes; the structures look like angular wooden pleasure palaces, blending in almost seamlessly with each other like ultra-modern cabins, as though one were at gay summer camp.

Bill Cunningham of the NYTimes, August 1997 Space Party

The Enduring Cool

Before the advent of street-style on social media, Bill Cunningham pioneered street photography in his five decade career, much of which was spent with the New York Times. Above, Cunningham photographs impossibly chiseled and tanned gentlemen attending Space Party in the Pines in 1997, evoking a cool that underpinned a dark period in the lives of many gay folks on the island in the 1990s. While his fashion-forward photography privileged the effortless style of his subjects, Cunningham did not shy from confronting the HIV/AIDs pandemic that was tearing through the fashion community. He was present, camera in hand, at benefits like the Balade de L’Amour AIDS benefit in Paris and multiple events at the Cornell Medical Center AIDS Care Center. He was a champion for his contemporaries, introducing the world to the likes of Jean Paul Gaultier and Azzedine Aläia. It’s no wonder he was affectionately dubbed “New York’s favorite photographer”.

DJ Lina Bradford (pictured bottom right), 2000s

Life after the Lifeboat

DJ Lina, internationally renowned performer and former club kid, began a 10-year residency as a DJ in the Pines in 2005. She made an appearance after a near-decade hiatus at the Pines 70th anniversary party. Pictures and news clippings from 2000-2010 take us through a celebratory period of Pines after the lifeboat of HIV/AIDs treatment provided a longer lease on life for many gay people.

Kirby Congdon's ode to Fire Island Pines

A Summer’s Key

The final page of the book features a poem by the late Kirby Congdon (who passed in June, just as the book was being completed) which best demonstrates the infernal magic of the island, the land that holds the promise of summer as soon as it begins to thaw.

We passengers, chattering on the Styx,
gather up our packages, like derelicts
who have got across a winter’s war
and, arriving at another year,
disembark at the battered dock
to that huge, public symbol of the sea.

we pull a weight of wagonloads
to those waiting doors our years have
known before
And, turning down the weathered walk
to the wintered house,
through the thin shivering trees,
we reach for the private comfort found
in the handy symbol of another summer’s key.

Kirby Congdon, 1972

Special thanks to John Dempsey and Ben Tousley for their help with research and restless commitment to preserving the enduring spirit of the Pines.

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