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To Die Alive Matthew Leifheit Fire Island gay LGBT
To Die Alive by Matthew LeifheitCourtesy the artist

Intense, illicit photos of Fire Island after dark

A Garden of Eden reclaimed for ‘Adam and Steve’: Matthew Leifheit’s new photo book To Die Alive shows the gay mecca as you’ve never seen it before

While on assignment for Vice to document the infamous underwear party at Fire Island’s Ice Palace, photographer Matthew Leifheit remembers feeling out of place. “I thought maybe I wasn’t part of this world or not that kind of gay – but since then I have fallen in love with it,” he tells Dazed. “It’s important to be able to go somewhere and feel like you’re in the majority.”

The Fire Island town of Cherry Grove first came to prominence in the 1930s. After a hurricane destroyed parts of Ocean Beach, a favourite destination of Hollywood celebrities, Broadway stars, artists, writers, and dancers, they found shelter in Cherry Grove and transformed it into a oasis for queer people. By the 1950s, the charming beach town had become a bustling center for New York’s LGBTQ+ community, providing safe haven for those who wanted to explore sexuality and gender at a time when homosexuality was considered both a crime and a mental illness.

Half a century after Stonewall, Fire Island continues to provide sanctuary and escape from the rigid norms of cis-heterosexual society. In the new book, To Die Alive (Damiani, March 17), Leifheit celebrates the people and places that give the community its edge, crafting a hypnotic portrait of queer life in the new millennium. Whether photographing sex workers, sugar daddies, bartenders, or models in the island’s lush landscape or discreet encounters at the Meat Rack, Leifheit creates a complex and compelling portrait of an intergenerational community in Fire Island today.

Drawing inspiration from the mid-20th century work of George Platt Lynes and the PaJaMa Collective, Leifheit began staging elegiac scenes of the endless night that quietly underscore the impact of Aids on the community over the years. “Most of the imagery I had seen about Fire Island was hot guys in the sun and this way of looking seemed a lot closer to my experience of sexuality, which has at times been fraught and dark,” Leifheit says.

“There’s a closeness between sex and death that’s palpable in the environment. The Meat Rack was a popular place for people to scatter the ashes of their friends who died in the early days of the crisis in New York,” says Leifheit. “I think it’s really beautiful that people whose families didn’t want them, often their friends would take them to this place where they had been happy and able to express themselves.”

With the advent of Aids, the landscape of LGBTQ+ life radically changed. “Public cruising scenes had almost disappeared by the early 90s and it’s something that seemed to belong to a different generation of gay men,” says Leifheit. “But with the widespread use of PrEP, there’s a renaissance of permissive sexual practices that has some similarity to the sexual utopia a lot of people describe from the late 70s.”

In Leifheit’s photographs, the landscape possesses a primordial beauty that mirrors this, acting as a Garden of Eden reclaimed for ‘Adam and Steve’. Here, nature is both sacred and profane, wild and unleashed yet profoundly spiritual in its purity. A heightened sense of theatricality, drama, and pathos pervades the work, much akin to the romantic sense of the sublime. In more recent photographs, the figure becomes indistinguishable from the landscape – the perfect metaphor for evolving notions of identity itself.

“I think younger people are having less use for strict definitions and labels,” Leifheit says. “Some of the older men grew up in a world where homosexuality was so subversive it was illegal, and it’s interesting that this group sometimes seems as antiquated now. I am interested in what will happen to Fire Island. There is a cultural loss that happens with assimilation. It’s like looking at this world on the brink of major change.”