Art

Jack Pierson on Capturing the Queer Community of the '80s

by Alex Frank
10.31.2017
Here, with the release of The Hungry Years, the photographer talks about the disillusionment of his generation, and how an AIDS diagnosis pushed him to leave a legacy.

Jack Pierson is a photographer and artist who came of age at a mythological moment, in the 1980s as part of a crew of bohemians that included the artists Mark Morrisroe, Nan Goldin, and David Armstrong, then referred to as the Boston School. The lot of them were queer outlaws who documented their world through photos and art, the dingy apartments and wild parties and road trips and drug use and days at the beach in Provincetown. Pierson has since become an acclaimed fashion photographer, shooting covers of Vogue and advertisements for brands like Bottega Veneta, but he has never lost his radical spirit: he has recently published three volumes of a book series called Tomorrow’s Man filled with nudes of scruffy beautiful men. Now, he is releasing The Hungry Years, a collection of photos from his earliest period in the 1980s, when he was in his 20s. The work is dreamy and exciting, a paean to the thrill of youth.   

 

Your photos from the ‘80s have this rosy nostalgic tint, and make the decade—more famous for over-the-top glamour—seem so intimate and cool and punk, with photos of drive-in movie theaters and glowing Miami hotels. 

When I was in my 20s, I hated the ’80s, so we all wanted to create the illusion that it wasn’t the ’80s. It seemed like the worst time. Everything sucked and looked horrible and was uncool. To me, the ’80s meant Reagan, Hall & Oates, stuff that looked tacky, and it was the ’60s that seemed like people looked good and dressed well and cars were cool and everything was better. Except for the racism and homophobia. Part of that was because I was a poor college student shopping in thrift stores and it’s all ’60s clothes that someone threw out. If you look at the kid on the cover, this kid named Andre La Roche who I was sort of in love with at the time, he’s in a ’50s bathing suit on a ’50s bed spread with ’60s cheap venetian blinds. I was trying to make it look earlier than it was.

 

The other sense I get from looking at the photos is how free things seemed.

Yes, but it was a freedom that I chose. This is how I was going to do it. 

 

Because of course, it must have been tricky being gay at that time and driving all over the country through small towns and rural places.

It was much more it still felt raw. It still felt hidden. You felt like you were privy to something else. It had an outlaw quality. You were part of the underclass, which I felt like anyway. You’d go to a gay bar in a small town and there was three locals there chained to a bar stool. 

 

Are you the type of New Yorker, like Fran Lebowitz, who thinks your time was better in the city than it is now.

Yeah, but I also see myself as an old person. When I got to New York when I was 20, there were 40-year olds who said to me, “It used to be better.” When I got there, it was $400 for an apartment, and I’d talk to people who said, “Ten years ago it was only $150!” And I felt like I missed something, too, like the ’60s and the Warhol factory and hippies. But I thought, This is good and we’ll make due. And we were able to because we were young. 

I hope that 20-year-olds now think New York is the coolest place it could possibly be in the world and they are living this dream and it’s never been better. Although, I floated that when I was teaching a class last spring and it sounded like all these cool kid art students were like, Yeah, it sucks, there’s nothing, everything is expensive, you can’t do anything, I have to live in Queens. It was just as expensive to me, but I felt like I was part of the coolest thing and we thought, Let’s put on a show and dress up like this and go there! 

Can you tell me about Mark Morrisroe, the almost-mythic artist who was once your boyfriend at this time, and who unfortunately died too young of complications from AIDS. 

Mark was a very exotic person. We were boyfriends for a couple of years and lived together. It wasn’t always easy. There was something glamorous and great about him, and he was sweet to me alternatively. But it wasn’t like he was nurturing. He grew up in the city, I grew up in the country. And when I met him he had been shot by a john because he was a hustler. I was working at an ice cream store at 16, so at the same time I was scooping ice cream, he was hustling and getting shot by johns. That was exotic. He was very angry as a result, and very driven and determined. He was aware of his own charisma, and he completely believed in his greatness as an artist and that he would definitely be famous. 

And you guys famously hung out in Cape Cod gay-mecca Provincetown with a whole crew that included photographers Nan Goldin and David Armstrong. 

We were drunk and high all the time in Provincetown. I was only there one summer and I lived with Mark and Stephen Tashjian. We did wild things, like hit the streets in ridiculous outfits and put on performances on the street corner. That was the summer I met David Armstrong, and at that time, he was probably 27, but to me, I thought, here’s this old queen who had really lived it, and he knows everyone. I felt privileged to know him, and I thought, What could I find out from him? It felt like we were receiving information that was important to have and that only an older generation had.

When the doctor told me I had HIV...I knew I wanted to leave something behind that said, 'I had a life.'

 

Mark died of AIDS, and I’m wondering how that disease in general affected your work.

I didn’t know I was HIV positive until 1992, but I think in that period I started to see that my life was valuable. At that time in New York, every night on 2nd Avenue between 4th and 8th street, people set up blankets and sold things on both sides of the sidewalk. You walked blanket to blanket after you got out of the bars, looking at stuff like ’50s porn or some cool shirt or an ashtray from Acapulco or snapshots of guys or an old cowboy belt. At first, I thought it was all stolen stuff, and I wondered if I should buy it. But then I realized that it was all stuff from a gay man who had died, and this was the stuff that was thrown out after he was gone. I thought, Look at these lives. This person had a life! And that lit a fire under my ass. I had been drifting, but then I thought, I want someone to know I had a gay life. It crept into my emotions as like, Oh, God, maybe you better do this now because who knows how long you have? When the doctor told me I had HIV, I said, “Well, how long have I got?” He said he didn’t know. I asked, “Two weeks?” And he responded, “Probably.” He really didn’t know and knew enough not to make promises. But I knew I wanted to leave something behind that said, “I had a life.” 

 

Your photos have a very relevant quality to them in that they are snapshots that almost feel like Instagram. Some of them even seem to have filters!

It’s pre-cell phone but it has the same impulse as Instagram. Like, Oh look how good he looks waking up from this nap we just had. That’s what people post on Instagram: Oh look, I have this life. If I have a message to my work, it’s like, Live a little. Notice things. How great is this? People say Instagram is showing off, but I think it’s people being grateful. 

 

The other thing I think about with you when looking at these photos is that you seem to have created a very beautiful life for yourself. I’ve read about your home in California and your apartment in the West Village, and even in those photos, you’ve chosen to see the world through such a lovely point of view.

It’s totally conscious. That’s all I want. And it’s all I want for everybody else. I think I have a beautiful life. Because of friends, mainly. But it’s also an insistence on things that I really like. My beautiful is the beach and a cozy bedspread and the idea that I’m meeting people and going places. And noticing it all while it’s happening.

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