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Queer people say it’s important now – more than ever – to create safe spaces that foster joy and community. WUSF’s Daylina Miller takes you around the greater Tampa Bay region to some of these events and meet-ups to showcase queer joy and stories of hope and resilience.

Photos connect a throwback Fire Island and today's St. Petersburg

A woman poses in a black and white picture between two men who kiss her.
Meryl Meisler
Courtesy of Meryl Meisler
One of Meisler's images currently on display at The Werk gallery, titled "My 1st Independence Day (Self-Portrait), Fire Island Pines, NY, July 4, 1979."

A New York-based visual artist’s newly released images of a 1970s LGBTQ+ getaway are now on display at a St. Petersburg art gallery, with the goal of spreading queer joy.

It’s 1962 at a Girl Scout camp in Bayport, Long Island.

Among the hushed whispers of the campers at a beach sleepover, a young Meryl Meisler begins hearing talks of a nearby island seemingly straight out of a fairytale.

“These girls were whispering about something and pointing out to the ocean and talking about a place called Fire Island.” Meisler said. “Where there were naked fairies who lived in little houses with names like Shirley Temple.”

Flash forward to the late 1970s.

Meisler is working as a freelance artist and photographing some of New York’s most infamous discos when she meets a Manhattan beautician named Barnett.

“We had met through mutual friends, I think at Studio 54,” Meisler said. “And Barnett invited me to come out to his place in Fire Island. I did not know what to expect. Arrive out there for the weekend, I was completely stunned and pleasantly surprised.”

This trip would spark a lasting connection between Meisler and the coastal communities of the Pines and Cherry Grove.

Over summer getaways from 1977 to 1979, Meisler would begin documenting her time spent on those shores.

“This was the style photography I was doing then and now as well,” Meisler said. “I don't specifically in general go to photograph, I photograph where I’m going.”

“I didn’t realize it at the time, but these [photographs] are like a visual diary,” she added. “I tend to ask to photograph people who are exuding joy, happiness, look like they're having good time. In retrospect, I realized I've always looked for people literally exuding pride in who they are.”

Woman poses in front of black backdrop in a studio with vintage film cameras.
Dean Goldberg
Courtesy of Meryl Meisler and Dean Goldberg
Meisler's work focuses on capturing the people and places she's explored over the course of her career.
"I realized I've always looked for people literally exuding pride in who they are."
Meryl Meisler

The barrier island is still known as a respite for the LGBTQ+ community, teeming with an uninhibited sense of freedom and celebration.

Meisler’s photographs would go unpublished for decades until recent efforts gave the images new life.

“I started going through my archives and showing my work and had the opportunity to [create] books,” Meisler said. “One of the books was about comparing suburbia and the city. I included some of these Fire Island pictures, and they started getting noticed and getting a lot of press.”

Woman on the beach poses next to a police officer riding a horse on the sand
Meryl Meisler
Courtesy of Meryl Meisler
Meisler would often visit Fire Island with her disco friend Judi Jupiter, shown in the photograph "Judi Jupiter Next to Police Officer on Horseback, Cherry Grove, Fire Island, August 1977."

The photos eventually caught the attention of Robert Bonanno.

The president and creator of the Fire Island Pines Historical Preservation Society was looking to move to St. Petersburg.

“My work with Fire Island, I'm moving it into a place of advocacy,” Bonanno said. “I realized that the symbolism of Fire Island, especially in the world today where people are suppressing who you are and who you could be, represented all of that; it represented a place where you can be yourself and you can be who you want.”

“I decided that maybe I could bring this sense of advocacy to St. Petersburg, putting together this Fire Island photo exhibit on a bigger scale,” he added.

Bonanno connected with Matthew and Fritz Faulhaber, owners of The Werk Gallery in the Warehouse Arts District.

Together, they created an exhibit featuring Meisler’s prints — the first time they've ever been on display.

Fritz Faulhaber said that Fire Island and St. Pete have quite a lot in common.

“There's a lot of of queer history in St. Petersburg that I don't want to say is unrecognized but isn't necessarily part of the main conversation a lot of the time,” he said. “But there is a direct historical correspondence as well, I’d say.”

Two men pose in an art gallery in front of a white wall with displayed photography prints.
Tyler Luginski
Matthew and Fritz Faulhaber are the owners and curators of The Werk Gallery in St. Petersburg.

The exhibit, titled “Fire Island 1970s: The Photography of Meryl Meisler,” opened to the public in May with a traditional Fire Island dance party, or “tea dance,” at Cocktail St. Pete.

The exhibit features several never-before-seen images, including a portrait of gay rights activist and drag performer Stormé DeLarverié.

For Meisler, the images speak for themselves.

“They’re fantastic images: they’re art, they’re beautiful,” Meisler said. “They make me smile, and I think they’ll make other people smile. They make you think, and they’re worthy of being shown and collected.”

And for Fire Island and St. Petersburg, these images may just be a testament to the importance of cultivating a community open to personal and creative expression.

The exhibit runs through June 30 at The Werk Gallery in St. Petersburg.

A woman in a blue and green patterned shirt poses with a blue drink in her hand with two men behind a printed backdrop.
Robert Bonanno
Courtesy of Robert Bonanno
Robert Bonanno, Meryl Meisler and DJ Robbie Leslie celebrate the launch of the exhibit at Cocktail St. Pete.

Tyler Luginski is a WUSF Rush Family Radio News intern for the summer of 2024.