And the Band Was Playing a Gay Tune
Photographer Sam Shahid promotes pride & positivity in a new book benefitting HIV/AIDS service organization ACRIA
by Michael Schreiber
Sam Shahid has spun a spectacular career out of his passion for photography, but not as a photographer himself. As a maverick and influential creative director, over the past three decades Shahid has helmed now-iconic advertising campaigns for such brands as Calvin Klein, Banana Republic, and Abercrombie & Fitch, often in collaboration with photographer Bruce Weber. Yet behind the scenes, Shahid has privately pursued his own photography since 1969, documenting friends and strangers joyfully engaged in living gay lives. In an effort to benefit the HIV/AIDS service organization ACRIA, Sam Shahid’s photographs have been collected in the new book, And the Band Was Playing a Gay Tune. The book is a stunning and radiant visual survey of post-Stonewall gay life.
Unlike Weber’s sensual cinematic photos that powerfully serve to sell fashion and fantasies, Shahid’s photos are pure electrifying street theater, focused not on idealized bodies and staging but on the full spectrum of everyday gay lives being proudly lived out loud. His subjects are gay men and women unconstrained, their pride in themselves and their collective identity joyfully bared, both literally and figuratively, for all to see. These are figures charged with light and life, casting off the specter of intolerance and fear to boldly embrace and, indeed, proudly advertise just who and what they are.
While the book is poignantly dedicated to Shahid’s boyfriend and two friends who died of AIDS (all three appear in photos in the book), this is not a book about loss, but rather a celebration of love and life, of people walking or marching or dancing to the beat of their own gay (i.e., happy) tune. As Hy Abady writes in his foreword to the book, “‘I Will Survive,’ Gloria Gaynor, that time, that tune, that we played over and over before so very many people did not. Survive. Yet, through it all, always a celebration a parade that we are out there and alive. No. We are ALIVE!”
Fittingly, And the Band Was Playing a Gay Tune has come out just in time for this year’s Pride celebrations.
A&U contributor Michael Schreiber spoke with Sam Shahid about the evolution of his project.
Michael Schreiber: Tell me about the genesis of these photos, and the friends and other people they depict?
Sam Shahid: When I first came to New York back in 1969, I got a camera as I wanted to photograph and document what I was seeing. It was all so new to me and so exciting. And then you meet people—you start acquiring friends—and they knew I loved photography. So three of them would call me and say, “come over this weekend. Bring your camera.” In those days, it wasn’t digital, it was all film. And I would go over and they would dress up and play-act. It was so much fun. We would scream and laugh. It was so campy, it was great. There was such a freedom there: they were comfortable doing it. So I took those pictures, and then we would have a party. We’d all get stoned and show them in a big slideshow with music playing, a disco song or something like that, and we would scream and laugh, and it was all just for us, a whole bunch of us. It was all a lot of fun. And then the gay parade started happening in New York, and I would go to that with friends, and I would take a few photographs here and there. I thought, God, this is really great. People feel so free. And it was all after Stonewall. I remember moving to New York in September 1969, and Stonewall happened in June, so I came at the beginning of all that, the freedom and the breakthrough. And then all of these photographs started collecting, but I didn’t think anything about it. I just did it for myself, not for a book. I never planned on that. I wasn’t sure where it was going, if it was going anywhere.
What was the impetus to publish these photos now?
As years went by, my boyfriend Larry died of AIDS—he’s in there, too; he’s one of the people I dedicate the book to, and these other two friends of mine and my sister. Anyway, all this happened all these years and I was photographing and photographing whatever. And then I did a book called Don’t Mind Me, and I went through my archives and I thought, you know, God, look at these photographs, what can I do with them? I want them to live on, you know. But they didn’t work in the book I was doing. And then one of my best friends invited me to Carnival Week in Provincetown two summers ago, and I thought, this is just fabulous. People were expressing themselves, and there was a lot of pride in all of it. And so I started photographing different things, and then I said to my art director, John MacConnell, “Something’s happening here. I’ve got my friends from the ’70s, and I’ve got photographs from the ’80s, documenting this and that.” But I just didn’t focus on it as being gay, you know. I didn’t think about it, I lived it. Anyway, John said, “You know, there is something here; I don’t know what it is yet. I’ve got to find a title. A title is going to make it work for me.” So we went to Dictionary.com, and I said, “Type in the word ‘gay.’” And there it was: it said this is how the word is used: “The band was playing a gay tune.” And I said, “My God, that’s it! We’ve got the book! I’ve got the story now.” But we put the word and in front of it: And the Band Was Playing a Gay Tune. So that’s how it all came about. So then I called ACRIA—Stewart Shining is a real good friend of mine, and he’s president of it—and I said, “You know, I’d like to do this book on the condition that you guys will accept proceeds from it.”
Why did you choose that particular organization?
ACRIA is very important to me because when Larry was living—and my other friends at the time—they were smuggling drugs in here to try to find a cure. AZT was one of their big success stories, and I remember there was a thing called Compound Q that was supposed to be the cure from China. It was cucumber powder. And it was ACRIA that Larry went to. He had to go be interviewed to see if he fit the profile. They selected ten guys in New York, ten in San Francisco, and ten in L.A. to test this new powder. And everyone thought that that was going to be the cure. It was not, but ACRIA put their necks out there, along with doctors—it was all underground—to administer these drugs to them, and so I’ve always been very close to them because of all of that. That they stuck their necks out there. Listen, they put their lives on the line. So I thought, I don’t want the money from this book, but I want to be able to take something from this particular subject and donate it to a cause like ACRIA.
You launched a Kickstarter campaign to get this book published. Its tremendous success speaks to there being great interest in and support for this project.
Kickstarter comes in because I thought, if I do the book myself, to do a thousand copies will cost a fortune, and I’d have to sell the book for $100, but I want the book to be $65. We need a bigger audience for it. So we decided, let’s try Kickstarter, and we got the money. And so now, every time I sell the book, the $65, all of it goes to ACRIA, because the book is already paid for. The turnout was great. There were a lot of people who supported it and gave money for it, so I was really happy about that. What’s interesting in the book: there’s frontal nudity too, because they all posed for me nude. I just loved that they were so free to do this and felt good about it and comfortable. So the book is about pride, and being whatever you want to be and who you want to be.
And that absolutely radiates from its pages. It’s a celebratory book.
The book tells a story from the very beginning to the end. You’ll feel it. You’ll see it. When you see the [photograph of] a newspaper about Stonewall I saw in a window on Christopher Street years ago, and it said, “Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad,” and when you turn the page, you see a kid stepping out onto the street with his hands up in the air with pride, and it’s just fantastic. I love it. And so the whole book is that. And the end too: make sure you look at the last picture before the back cover, because it tells you everything. It tells you how I feel about it. It’s a good feeling.
Placed in this celebratory context, a photo of the 1987 AIDS March on Washington reads less as a somber statement or a vitriolic moment of protest, and more as a statement of pride and the power of collective action.
Right. My boyfriend is in that photograph and two of his best friends—they were lovers—and all three died. But what was really great was that here we were now able to go out and say, “Hey, world, look at us.” And that was the pride. We weren’t ashamed anymore. We didn’t have to hide anymore. Even though death was at the doorstep, the fact is that we were all there ready to say, “Here we are.” And we stood together. I have a little of that in there; you’ll see it. But I didn’t want it to be all about the march and that kind of thing. I wanted it to be just what it is. And its [message is] so simple: I’m gay and I’m proud and I’m happy.
Your photos are jubilant depictions of various aspects of gay life from the 1970s through today. What I find so remarkable is the timelessness of so many of these images: they feel so contemporary, in spite of the fact that some of these photos were taken thirty, forty years ago.
Yes. And it never changes, interestingly enough. In the ’70s, when I was photographing friends and all of it, whatever it was, it’s the same thing right now. The same costumes, the same joy, the same fantasies, the same role playing—it’s all exactly the same. It never changes. When you look through the book, you’ll see all these young kids in the parade with all their stuff, and it’s just fantastic to see all walks of life there. It’s great. Everyone is happy, and people who are watching are happy.
After spending the time you have recently to curate these photos of past parades and other views of gay life, I can imagine this year’s Pride celebrations might have added or a different resonance for you?
It’s always the same. It’s a good same. It’s not forced or made up; it’s real. It’s from the heart. The same message [of pride] is there. It never changes.
Sam Shahid’s And the Band Was Playing a Gay Tune is available from Antinous Press: www.antinouspress.com/current/and-the-band-was-playing-a-gay-tune.
Michael Schreiber is a teacher and writer based in Chicago. His first book, One-Man Show: The Life and Art of Bernard Perlin, was named a 2017 Stonewall Honor Book by the American Library Association, and is a Lambda Literary Award finalist. He and husband Jason Loper are the creators of the popular blog This American House, which chronicles their adventures restoring their Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home in Iowa. Michael is currently at work on a book about artist Don Bachardy.