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Words Joe Brennan
Photography Leonard Fink

Flesh on the waterfront

You can find anything
That you’re looking for
Absolutely guaranteed
It won’t be a bore, no, no
They’re everywhere, I’m telling you

It’s late 1980 and the newly-formed San Francisco outfit Boys Town Gang gathers to record these lyrics for their impending disco release, Cruisin’ the Streets. The track runs for 13 minutes, interspersing thumping funk with obscene dialogue between men cruising for sex in the urban dusk. Between its simulated orgasms and foley masturbation, this is a song clearly thrilled by its own bawdy intensity. As one appalled Castro debutante exclaims to another, “I didn’t think anyone was into that!”

The same year, the vaguely controversial William Friedkin releases his crime thriller Cruising, about a serial killer targeting gay men in New York’s leather scene. The film had been shot on the West Side, dragging Al Pacino’s trailer to Christopher Street and causing a commotion. A rightly suspicious Vito Russo spent the better half of 1979 condemning the production for New York magazine. When it came time to promote the picture internationally, one sheets and lobby cards across Europe and America deployed the same visual motif. Whether the blacked-out faces of gay bar patrons or the gloomy outline of a night stalker, the film’s advertising foregrounds sinister silhouettes. For its eventual German release, the grim aesthetic was distilled to little more than looming shadows.

Despite the all-consuming gaiety of Boys Town Gang, it was Cruisin’ and likeminded sunless cultural artifacts that would come to dominate general perceptions of homosexual intimacy. Cruising was coded as sordid and furtive, rooted in shame and an unhappy secrecy.

This is not how cruising operates on a practical level and it is certainly not how it feels. In fact, it represents an exercise in mutually affirmed visibility for queer people and a hyper-self-consciousness removed from the anxiety of nascent homosexuality. How satisfying to be able to communicate freely via instinctive movements of the hands and eyes, if not in the antagonistic presence of hetero culture, then at least in the spaces that it built.

A few blocks down from the Cruising set, near Pier 46 on the Hudson, photographer and “unofficial Mayor of Christopher Street” Leonard Fink was roller-skating beside the water, camera swinging from a strap around his neck. Fink had begun to explore photography in the early 1960s, shooting cityscapes and travel snapshots. By the end of the decade, he had developed a specific interest in portraiture and street photography—for which gay culture would be his ultimate subject. Meanwhile, in response to a lack of legislative protections, homosexuals across the city had taken ownership of Greenwich Village, finding community, comfort and occasional danger among the dilapidated piers along the river. The city’s chequered history of urban planning had left behind a collection of abandoned arenas ripe for the expression of queer desire, the migration of gay sex out of closets and onto the street. They could congregate, sunbathe and—if the mood struck—peel away from the oiled-up masses in twos and threes to enter the crumbling buildings at every side.

It was in this environment that Fink took his most remarkable photographs, documenting gay men as they cruised between the ruins. There are couples mid-coitus, lying atop the splintered rubble. There are men walking beneath ruptured ceilings in the tightest of 501s. There are gures with unzipped flies, leaning against walls adorned with the carnal graffiti of Tava—real name Gustav von Will—and associates. David Wojnarowicz would label these obscene murals “vagrant frescoes.”

Most of Fink’s subjects knew they were being photographed and, according to artist Jonathan Weinberg, the presence of his camera only encouraged the “intensification of their exhibitionism,” the performance of pride. In many images, Fink himself hams it up for the camera—a willing object, exposed and glad. Such portraits are both intensely private and openly humorous, much like the experience of cruising itself. It is a contrivance simultaneously honest and absurd.

Although he recorded these erotic encounters openly, Fink was not ‘out’ to his family in the traditional sense. He was a lawyer for the city’s transit department and lived frugally on the Upper West Side, far removed from his identity on the waterfront. He never published or exhibited his work during his lifetime.

These images now exist as a historical archive, proof that these lives were lived out of the shadows and gloom. More than 25,000 mostly 35mm negatives were donated by his estate in 93, along with four feet of monochrome prints. Fink’s photography constructed counter-realities in which he and his peers were able to publicly enjoy the performative intimacy of their queerness in perpetuity. Regardless of ongoing attempts to neuter and erase the immensity of their physical passions, they were everywhere, I’m telling you.

Explore the full, 16-page photo essay in Museum Issue 6, available hereThank you to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center, New York, who hold the photographic archives of Leonard Fink. 

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