Geoff Story spent much of his 20s perusing thrift stores and garage sales in search of antique photos and vintage cameras. It was during one such visit that he made an unusual find that would inspire a massive and, in some respects, personal project that’s a work in progress more than two decades later.
In 1996, Story dropped by an estate sale in St. Louis, where he purchased two reels of 8 mm film he found in the home’s attic. The photographer and creative director, then 27, found himself intrigued by the canister containing the reels, which bore the label “a gay party.” Given the age of the film, he wondered, would “gay” mean “homosexual” or simply “merry”?
It didn’t take long for Story to get an answer. The 22 minutes of color footage shows dozens of seemingly carefree men sunbathing and splashing around a swimming pool in a remote Missouri location. Some are shirtless, while others appear in drag attire and military uniforms. Several pair off to dance, sip beer and even share a kiss.
It’s a scene that may look familiar to anyone who’s ever visited Provincetown, Massachusetts, or Palm Springs, California, except that it took place in the rural Midwest ― miles away from any semblance of a queer-inclusive resort ― sometime around 1945. (Catch a snippet of the film above.)
“The first thing I saw was a man in drag, sashaying towards the camera, cigarette in hand,” Story told HuffPost. “I didn’t know who the owners were; it was all out of context. I didn’t know how old the film was, but I knew that it was something special. I don’t know how comfortable I’d be having a party today in some parts of rural Missouri.”
After a handful of viewings, Story opted to put the fragile films aside out of fear he’d damage them. Watching the men in the films also struck a nerve given that Story, who is gay, had yet to come out to his parents when he purchased the reels. By 2017, however, he digitized the films and began...