Legendary art director (A&F Quarterly, Calvin Klein) and photographer, Sam Shahid, is currently running a Kickstarter Campaign for his new book, And the Band was Playing a Gay Tune by Antinous Press. The project is a photo documentary of gay life—the struggles, the triumph, the heartache, and the joy—shot from the 1970’s through today.
Shahid sat down with me and he took me through the book page by page. I learned who was sleeping with whom, who was sleeping with him, the people we lost because of AIDS, and friends who were finally able to get married. He was in love with every single photo in the book and proud to share them with the world.
Phillip M Miner (PM): Tell me about your inspiration for writing the book.
Sam Shahid (SS): I’ve been taking photos all of these years and I just threw them in a box somewhere. Then, a few years ago, I was doing a book, Don’t Mind Me, and I started coming across these images. I didn’t immediately know I wanted them to be a book.
Later, I was talking to John [MacConnell] and told him, “a lot of my friends are gone and I want them to be remembered somehow.” They really felt good about themselves. Some of us lived in the closet then, but everyone felt great about themselves and thought they were fabulous. I wanted to show that to the world.
I showed them to younger people who don’t know the details of the history to see how they’d react. After their positive response, I knew I had something but I didn’t know what it was.
PM: How did you figure it out?
SS: I didn’t have enough photos to do a proper history of [that time], but I came across more images of Pride and parades and protests.
I had John type “gay” in Google and we went to a dictionary page and looked at how the word is used sometimes and we came to a sentence that said “The band was playing a gay tune.” I thought, “Oh, my God, we have it! Now it all works!”
It’s really a celebration of living proud. Everyone who’s seen it says it leaves them feeling fantastic. I wanted the book to be happy. There are images about AIDS, but those are photos of my friends. This is who they are and how they lived.
PM: Knowing that, it makes sense you started the book with a photograph of a newspaper response to the Stonewall Riot.
SS: Not many people would put this on the title page, but I wanted to include that newspaper clipping. Just for the headline alone! “Homo Nest Raided. Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad.” Starting there makes sense. I wanted that first image to be about Stonewall and then everything that follows to be the life of gay men after that. The whole thing has a story to it, it’s about celebration and Pride. It all works so well together.
PM: Thank you for taking me through the book. The layout is so fun. I’d never guess some of the photos weren’t taken on the same day.
SS: I love that the men on opposing pages look like they’re cruising each other even though the pictures might be taken decades a part. I love that. You’d think I caught people eyeing each other. I didn’t!
PM: It is unbelievable—most of the photographs in this book could be taken in any year during those four decades.
SS: Any year! I wanted the book to have that feeling. It’s the same. Laughing and dressing up and hooking up.
PM: How did you get started taking these photos?
SS: What’s interesting was, when I first came to New York I got a camera because I wanted to go out and photograph what I was seeing and experiencing. You meet friends and they would call me and say, “Can you come over and photograph me?” We never thought they’d go anywhere. We just took them for fun. We’d have a party and people would come over and get naked and I’d photograph them and we’d all have a great time.
They wanted to perform for the camera and be recorded. Most of these guys are dead now, bless them, but in these photos they’re documented forever having a good time.
PM: Given our current political climate, I found the protest images especially poignant.
SS: It’s all the same! It never changes. That’s why I included so many photographs of protests in the book. There are photographs from the AIDS March in Washington and marriage rights protests. There’s a photo of my friends who got married and my sister was their witness.
When Anita Brant came into the picture, the gays really came out in full force to protest. That was was the first time I can remember gays saying, “We think enough of ourselves that we have to stand up.”
Our rights are going to start slipping backward. It’s a great time to give younger people a sense of how long we’ve been protesting for our rights and how we’re hitting the streets today in the same way.
PM: You’re currently running a Kickstarter?
SS: Yes! It ends March 1st. It seemed like the best way to let people know the book was coming out and make sure we’re able to see it at the right price. I mean, why not! I’ll beg my friends for money, they’re always begging me for something [laughs].
Also, I had my team here take care of details, so if it fails it’s their fault [laughs].
PM: [laughs] And, the proceeds from the book will be going to ACRIA?
SS: Yes! That organization is important to me. When Larry [Soracco, my late boyfriend] was still alive, ACRIA was so important in getting new medication to him and other AIDS patients to try to help the situation. I wanted to do a book to help them! I really wanted to do something for the gay community.
The kids don’t know anything about the AIDS that we went through. The pain and the shock. I wanted to show them what our lives were like. But, I also wanted them to finish the book and know being gay is fabulous and express themselves and love every second. Really, I don’t want this book to be an analysis of anything, I want it to be about joy.
Click here to reserve your copy of And the Band was Playing a Gay Tune on Kickstarter.