Matthew Leifheit, To Die Alive

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Damiani Editore (here). Hardcover, 144 pages, with 77 color photographs. Includes essays by Jeremy O. Harris and Jack Parlett. (Cover and distribute the plans below.)

Comments/Background: Matthew Leifheit is a New York-based photographer and the founder of MAST magazine, whose artistic practice focuses on the stories and legacies of gay life. He spent nearly a decade photographing summers on Fire Island, a 32-mile barrier island off Long Island just two hours from Manhattan that served as a weird summer mecca for more than a century. Today it is a place where past and present intersect.

Shot mostly at night, often in dim or artificial light, images from Leifheit’s recent photobook die alive portray the gay community in the midst of a complex mix of desires and emotions – carnal pleasure, intimacy, solace, fears and freedom. Leifheit notes that “I’m interested in their transitional status as a band that went from being illegal in their lifetime to being considered relatively conventional by today’s standards”.

The book’s title is a direct reference to Ariana Grande’s song “Break Free,” released in 2014, the year Leifheit started the project. die alive is a book in horizontal format, with a black faux leather cover and the title appearing at the top with the three words spaced out and the artist’s name stretched below to fill the entire line. The book has three chapters and its visual flow consists of color images of varying sizes and locations on the pages, with a list of captions indicating the names of the people in the photos and the year they were taken. The book opens with an essay by Jeremy O. Harris, shape-shifting playwright and cultural figure, and ends with an essay by Jack Parlett, writer and literary scholar (he has also just published his book on the literary history of Fire Island). . Both texts are printed in white font on black paper, reinforcing the dark atmosphere of Die alive.

For Leifheit, “Fire Island holds this cultural fantasy associated with gay culture” and aesthetically, his photographs fall somewhere between this fantasy and reality. A vertical image, placed far right of one of the first pages, shows the tower of the Belvedere Guest House on Fire Island on a stormy day. Opened in the 1950s and designed in an upscale Venetian style, the Belvedere is a clothing-optional, men-only hotel. It opens the first chapter, titled “The Ice Palace”, a reference to a famous nightclub on the island. The next image appears with full bleed, with seven naked men posing along the white columns and balconies of the hotel building with a greyish sky in the background. This opening sequence defines the elusive atmosphere charged with die alive.

Leifheit then takes us into the halls of the Belvedere, showing its interiors as well as a series of rather intimate moments. In an image titled “The Marie Antoinette Room (After Velázquez), 2018”, two young men pose in a bedroom decorated with flowers, one of them lying on the bed and looking into an oval mirror. In another, a young man poses on a bed in a chintz-soaked bedroom, while the silhouette of another young man is visible in the wall mirror. From those scenes in prim sets, we move on to blurry, sweaty encounters at the nightclub.

The second chapter titled “The Sunken Forest” refers to a real forest on the Isle of Fire, a rare ecological community that is also known as an active cruising ground. Taken at night, the photographs are highly staged and dramatized, capturing nude models as they pose in the moonlight (with an echo of Ryan McGinley’s outdoor nudes), embedded in the lush landscape of the island. composed of tiny twisted trees. The photographs are erotic and quite explicit, but they are still elegant and artistic. One image, printed full bleed onto the board, shows a naked young man photographed from behind, his body almost merged with the branches and greenery of the forest.

Throughout the project, Leifheit photographed a wide range of people, of different generations, “ranging from sugar daddies to bartenders and sex workers.” There are friends, muses and lovers, but also strangers he’s solicited through apps like Grindr and Instagram. And in addition to the staged shots, Leifheit also included calmer, more introspective portraits.

The third and final chapter “Talisman” describes the landscape of the island. The image titled “Wave (Hudson and MeHow), 2018” highlights two kneeling men hugging each other in the evening waves, the water around them a pretty purple blue. As the sun slowly rises over the beach and the debauchery in the woods comes to an end, the land returns to its normal rhythm.

As a photo book, die alive stands out for its elemental design and careful sequencing, and its photographs offer a compelling portrait of a queer community seeking to define, liberate, and protect themselves. It is a rich and intimate celebration of the people and the iconic place, which makes it one of the strongest photobooks released this year so far.

Collector’s point of view: Matthew Leifheit doesn’t seem to have a consistent gallery representation at the moment. Therefore, collectors interested in following should probably connect directly with the artist via their website (linked in the sidebar).

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