The photographs, thousands of them, all make the same assertion: It was better back then. The young were younger, happiness was happier, beauty more beautiful. The best of times.
“If someone looked at these pictures, they would think it was all just one giant party,” says Fred Eggers, a member of the Facebook group “Provincetown in the 90’s.” The photo collection of the group, which has over 3,000 members, is a trove of memories: drag balls, packed beaches, summer flings, punk shows, fit bodies with golden tans, gaggles of friends sitting on Commercial Street stoops.
Though thousands of photographs have been shared since the group’s founding in 2008, after you’ve finished scrolling through them — which could take an entire day — you’re left with this: you had to be there.
“Provincetown in the 90’s” is just one of many Facebook groups that serve as nesting boxes for nostalgia, each one a chorus of people singing an ode to Provincetown’s good old days. When exactly those days were depends. There are groups for Provincetown in the ’70s, ’80s, and even the 1800s.
Most of the groups are private; you need a current member to approve your request to join. There might be a quiz. The ’80s group, for example, asks what your connection to Provincetown is. Others are open to all. There’s “My Grandfather’s Provincetown” for the early- and mid-20th century, full of scans of old photographs with frayed edges, all telling stories of a simpler, slower, and more family-oriented place.
That there are so many people dedicated to sentimentalizing Provincetown’s past comes as no surprise: this is a storied and self-regarding town with a seductive power that compels people to record their time here. It is a town that likes to be the center of attention, and nostalgia makes for a flattering spotlight.
“Provincetown in the 90’s” stands out for just how flattering a light it shines on the past. It reveals a town in screaming color, everything distilled through the saturating filter of early digital photography. People are forever partying at the club, unless they’re partying at the beach; resplendent in elaborate costumes or half-nudity; hanging out in huge groups or side-hugging their boyfriends. Everyone is ebullient. Joy is as ubiquitous as oxygen.
“It was a lot of fun,” says Eggers. “It was Provincetown during its peak as a party town.”
Eggers, who now lives in Syracuse, started visiting Provincetown when he was growing up in the late 1970s. His older sisters, both also gay, had moved here, and Eggers followed them in 1993, when he was 22. He lived here until the turn of the millennium. He worked a slew of jobs every summer — houseboy, sales clerk, waiter — and during the winters he hosted and attended grand dinner parties.
“This picture is on a boat,” he says, holding up a photo on a Zoom call. “They would take 200 people out on whale watch boats at midnight and wait until we were in international waters to turn on the music and the lights and then we wouldn’t get back until 6 a.m.” In the picture, he’s with two friends, all of them sun-kissed and wearing stacks of glow necklaces.
Eggers is seen with an eclectic group of young men and women in the photos he’s shared. “It was a lot less homogenous back then,” says Mark Meehan, a masseur and performer who appears in dozens of the photographs, most often performing in Space Pussy with a frosted-tipped buzzcut. He still lives in Provincetown. “Nowadays,” he says, “people are segregated into their different archetypes and cliques.”
In one picture in the ’90s group, a jock with gargantuan pecs wearing show-me-what-you-got basketball shorts stands next to a twink in a garden hat with matching sundress, who stands next to a drag queen in Hepburn-esque sunglasses and black gown, who stands before a leatherman, on his knees, pantomiming fellatio. “People were always pushing the envelope back then,” says Meehan. “It was just amazing.”
It all seems too good to be true, doesn’t it? The photographs in the ’90s group idealize the decade so much that it begins to feel suspect: one starts to wonder what this nostalgia might be papering over. Arguing against photography as evidence, Susan Sontag wrote that “photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal.”
The low resolution and high exposure of these pictures smooth out blemishes and imperfections. It’s a world made perfect through its simplifying patina.
If you move from the photos and start to comb through the comments on them, something else comes into view. Here and there you will find “RIP” and “gone” and remarks informing other members of the group that one of the people in a photo has since died. Under a picture dated 1991 of three men voguing on the beach is the comment: “This was during the AIDS epidemic when we were living through the onslaught of our collective grief.”
Although the AIDS epidemic is often talked about as collateral damage of the Reagan years, it remained a reality throughout the 1990s. In 1988, 10,911 people died of AIDS in the U.S.; in 1992, that number was 33,590, and the number kept increasing every year until protease inhibitors, the first effective AIDS treatment, became available in 1996.
“When I moved to Provincetown in 1991 and up through the mid-’90s, you would see people you hadn’t seen in a few months and they would be at death’s door,” says Meehan.
Michel Richoz, who moved here from Montreal in 1988 when he was 22 and stayed until 2006 when he moved back to Canada, recalled people walking down Commercial Street with Kaposi’s sarcoma. “There’s a lot of PTSD from that era because the ’90s were really, really rough,” says Richoz. “There were people dying all the time. We lost so many people who were the fabric of this town.”
Despite the fun and the tomfoolery depicted in the photos, Richoz, Meehan, and Eggers all say that the decade was defined in no small part by fear. “I was so afraid of AIDS,” Meehan says. “I was a nun in those days.” Eggers echoes the sentiment: “I was celibate for most of the ’90s.”
What then to do with the photographs? Strike them from the record as false evidence? Nostalgia is often seen as suspect. There must be an ulterior motive, one that intentionally omits and elides all that was traumatic and devastating about the past. But what if what we’re seeing in the photos isn’t a denial of the AIDS crisis but that crisis viewed from the side?
“Partying was a way to cope,” Richoz says. “You couldn’t always be thinking about it, or else you’d go crazy.” Eggers calls it “a willing suspension of disbelief.”
As you look through the photos again, crisis doesn’t feel absent from them: it underlies everything you’re seeing. A party on a whale boat, the overelaborate costumes, a grand dinner party, the carefully calibrated tans, a sweaty punk show all seem like reasonable responses to catastrophe. Disaster snaps us into the absorbing present and reminds us what counts: friends, lovers, family, and enjoying the moments we have with them. Of course you’d photograph those moments.
Rebecca Solnit writes in A Paradise Built in Hell, “We don’t even have a language for this emotion, in which the wonderful comes wrapped in the terrible, joy in sorrow, courage in fear.”
Nostalgia may distort our view of the past, but only if it’s left unexamined. Sometimes it just asks that the good moments be considered weighty, too. About the Facebook page, says Richoz, “It’s a way to remember that even though it was a horrible time, we were still young.”