Throughout the cocktail-soaked, double-entendre-loaded glimmering afternoon of a Labor Day weekend on Fire Island, during which more than 50 drag queens swathed in gold lamé and fuschia chiffon strutted down a poolside runway, each with the hope that she would be crowned the Miss Thing of the year, Chris Casaburi did his thing. He grabbed at least half of the day's exquisite creatures, one by one, placed them in front of soft pastel drop cloths and froze them in gelatin prints-more often than not making them more beautifully seamless than they were in real life.
"I like to photograph people who are comfortable with themselves," says Casaburi, 35, a professional photographer who resides in Astoria. His instincts to find comfortable people on Fire Island proved correct. "For the most part, they were hamming it up a little bit. My crotch got grabbed a couple of times."
Last year was only his second excursion to the Miss Fire Island Contest, despite the fact that he grew up in nearby Sayville. Casaburi recalls the summer days he would spend wading through the brine to go clamming.
"But when the clamming wasn't too fruitful," he recalls, "I'd drop my rake and go to the beach." And for Casaburi, living a half-mile away from the Fire Island ferries, going to the beach often meant joining the jubilant city masses for a quick jaunt over to Cherry Grove or the Pines for a day or night of utopian adventure. He loved growing up near such excitement.
Then, two years ago, he went to his first Miss Fire Island pageant-which happened to be the Island's 32nd-and was swept away.
"I just remember thinking, 'Oh my God, these guys are fabulous, they're colorful, they're extravagant," he recalls. It was instant inspiration, he says, explaining that-besides forays into the exotic, like when he photographed the Annual Tattoo and Body Piercing Contest in Coney Island and set up a mini-studio right in front of the Cyclone-he spends most of his time shooting business portraits. (Check out the cover of the June '97 Forbes.)
He returned to the Miss Fire Island Contest last year, armed with his camera, lighting equipment and materials to set up a small studio. "I like to be in control over the lighting and stuff," he says, which is why he doesn't usually shoot in natural settings. The result is his solo show at the Barbara Ann Levy Gallery of Contemporary Fine Art in Cherry Grove.
"I'm slowly starting to get away from the business people," he says. "I keep moving up the food chain of photography."
PORTRAITS: THE 33RD ANNUAL MISS FIRE ISLAND CONTEST opens Aug 14 with a reception at 7pm at the Barbara Ann Levy Gallery at the Ice Palace in Cherry Grove. Exhibit through Sept 15. This year's Miss Fire Island Contest is Sept 11.
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