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 spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Matthew Leifheit is a New York-based photographer and the founder of MATTE magazine, whose artistic practice focuses on the histories and legacies of gay life. He has spent almost a decade photographing summers on Fire Island, a 32-mile barrier island off Long Island just two hours from Manhattan, which has served as a queer summertime mecca for more than a century. Today, it is a place where the past and the present intersect.

Shot mostly at night, often with low or artificial light, the images in Leifheit’s recent photobook To Die Alive portray the gay community amidst a complex mix of desires and emotions – carnal pleasure, intimacy, solace, fears, and freedom. Leifheit notes that “I am interested in their transitional status as a group that has gone from being illegal in their lifetime to being seen as relatively conventional by today’s standards.” 

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

For Leifheit, “Fire Island holds this cultural fantasy associated with gay culture” and aesthetically, his photographs lie somewhere between this fantasy and reality. A vertical image, placed at the very right of one of the opening pages, shows the tower of the Belvedere Guest House on Fire Island on a stormy day. Opened in the 1950s and designed in high-camp Venetian style, the Belvedere is a male-only clothing-optional hotel. It opens the first chapter, titled “The Ice Palace”, a reference to a famous night club on the island. The next image appears in full bleed, with seven nude men posing along the white columns and balconies of the hotel building with a grayish sky in the background. This opening sequence sets the elusively charged atmosphere of To Die Alive

Leifheit then takes us inside the rooms of the Belvedere, showing its interiors along with a series of rather intimate moments. In one image titled “The Marie Antoinette Room (After Velázquez), 2018”, two young men pose in a room decorated with florals, one of them lies on the bed looking into an oval mirror. In another, a young man poses on a bed in a chintz-drenched room, while the silhouette of another young man can be seen in the wall mirror. From these scenes in prim settings, we move to blurry and sweaty encounters at the night club. 

The second chapter titled “The Sunken Forest” references an actual forest on the Fire Island, a rare ecological community which is also known as an active cruising ground. Shot at night, the photographs are highly staged and dramatized, capturing nude models as they pose under the moonlight (with an echo of Ryan McGinley’s outdoor nudes), embedded in the island’s lush landscape of tiny, twisted trees. The photographs are erotic and quite explicit, yet they are always elegant and artistic. One image, printed full bleed across the spread, shows a nude young man shot from behind, his body almost merged with branches and greenery of the forest. 

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

The third and final chapter “Talisman” depicts the landscape of the island. The image titled “Wave (Hudson and MeHow), 2018” flash lights two men on their knees hugging in the evening surf, the water around them a lovely violet-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 rhythms. 

As a photobook, To 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 itself. It is a richly intimate celebration of both the people and the iconic place, making it one of the strongest photobooks published this year so far.

Collector’s POV: Matthew Leifheit does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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