I texted Matthew Leifheit for confirmation: “Are PaJaMa the first fags to make a ‘thing’ out of photographing their friends on Fire Island?” Matt is one of those artists who’ve done deep-dive research into the collaborative made up of lovers Paul Cadmus and Jared French, and his wife Margaret Hoening French, each lending the first two letters of their first names to form the silly sobriquet. Starting in the late 1930s the three photographed each other against the shrunken trees and low beach horizon to create a unique brand of sun-bleached surrealism. Their famous friends are ever present, including the photographer George Platt Lynes and American polymath Lincoln Kirstein, who was married to Cadmus’s sister Fidelma Cadmus Kirstein, an artist herself and glorious leading lady. They are each young, athletic and exceedingly photogenic. The images crystalize a myth of the place, where pretty white queers play out amorphous psychodynamics on the barrier island two hours southeast from Manhattan.
“I think that’s totally fair to say.” Matt texted back, continuing, “There were theater people in Ocean Beach in the 1920s, but if there was any kind of photographic culture around that I have not seen it. Whatever snapshots existed in Cherry Grove when it stated getting gay in the early 30s would have been heavily coded.” Matt has been photographing summers on Fire Island for the past few years, publishing them now as Matthew Leifheit: To Die Alive (Damiani, 2022). There are none of the sunny beach or pool pictures that define the “Fire Island” genre (Let’s say it together: TOM BIANCHI!), but instead they all unfold at night, with strange, low, artificial lights. Erotically overheated tableaux within in architecture built for looking—into mirrors, through windows, down from balconies, between dunes—the result is a gay Eyes Wide Shut. Twinks lounge in chintz-drenched bedrooms, attended by other naked men, staring at them or at something else. Spot-lit daddies writhe amongst the gnarled trees of the Meat Rack. The subjects are diverse, in terms of age and race, intertwining lithe and smooth with leathery and paunchy. There is also a feeling that these people are mostly strangers, from each other and the photographer. It is a fucked up book, but tenderly so; the full body chills after a sunburn.