Life & Culture

Quietly Beautiful Polaroids of Massachusetts’ Queer Community

Michael Joseph’s ongoing series The Wild West of the East shines a light on Provincetown, the fabled LGBTQ summer getaway situated at the very tip of Cape Cod

Ten years ago, Michael Joseph made his first trip to Provincetown, the fabled LGBTQ summer getaway situated at the very tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. He did the cursory stroll down Commercial Street, wandered through shops, ate a lobster roll, sampled some saltwater taffy, and took the ferry home disappointed. A friend told Joseph that he had done it all wrong, explaining that “the town is about the people and experiences you have with them, more than the place itself”.

Soon after, Joseph was invited to join a group of friend spending a week in the summer at a rental house. That summer he discovered the town the Norman Mailer described to Jacqueline Kennedy in 1960 as “The Wild West of the East”, when it was the favoured beachside escape for artists and writers including Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Mark Rothko, and Franz Kline.

Since then, Joseph has returned every year, during the height of the summer as well as off-season when only the locals remain. Here, Joseph shares a selection of images from The Wild West of the East, an ongoing series of Polaroid portraits made between the months of May and October, starting in 2018, that tells the story of Provincetown through the people who have made it a bohemian wonderland for the queer community.

“The LGBTQ+ community in Provincetown is diverse in so many ways it is hard to encapsulate. I have friends who are writers, artists, performers, and shop owners, friends who bring their kids to socialise with other LGBTQ+ families, friends who come to party and who are sober. As one of my portrait subjects stated, ‘there are tattooed tweakers and A-list celebrities hanging out on the same street corner’. There is criticism that a lot of Provincetown is older white men with money, and that does exist, but to that criticism, I urge people to look deeper.

“I consider myself a street portrait photographer. My work often focuses on identity formation and community living outside of societal norms with an emphasis on personal storytelling. I once made a rule that I would never photograph someone in costume but in Provincetown, the rules change. Perhaps this town grants a licence to dress however one wants and express love towards whomever one wants is a more authentic way. The inside is now shown on the outside.

“Here the sense of freedom is palpable and transformational. It is creative, sexual and exploratory. As one subject said, ‘I’ve painted my face 100 different ways walking into town and I’ve finally found a place where freaks like me are supposed to be’. The drag queens, performers, muscle boys, bears, leather men, trans, preppies, families with two moms, line cooks, seasonal workers, and DJs – they all tell a composite story of Provincetown as a heretic’s dream of somewhere wild with no boundaries.

“Early in the spring of 2018 I began experimenting with different Polaroid cameras and film. The Big Shot camera gave me such a rush. It’s entirely plastic, extremely inaccurate, and requires single-use, vintage rotating flash cubes. There is one focal length and a tight crop – essentially you must capture everything in the face. It was most popular in the mid to late 1970s and recognised as one of Warhol’s favourite cameras. It’s a nod to the past. I get the most bizarre looks walking down the street with that camera, yet at the same time, it fits right it in Provincetown.”

Michael Joseph’s photograph of Kurt, 2018 from The Wild West of the East series was named first place winner of 2020 International Krappy Kamera Competition and will be in view in Krappy Kamera Exhibition from February 17 – March 7, 2020 at the Soho Photo Gallery, New York.