October 24th, 2019
Down and Out on the West Side Piers
Alvin Baltrop made an indelible record of gay life in New York before AIDS. But why is a queer, Black artist’s work only valuable after his death?
By Jesse Dorris
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, men disenfranchised and terrorized by their country built sexual and social playgrounds in the abandoned piers along the West Side of Manhattan. It was a dangerous world, where floors could collapse below you and assignations could turn to predations—but then, America in general was a dangerous world for queer people. Edmund White describes the irresistible allure in his 2009 memoir, City Boy: “Once I was in the backs of trucks or in the ruined piers along the Hudson, I simply couldn’t make myself go home. Even after a satisfying encounter with one man or ten I still wanted to hang around to see what the next ten minutes would bring.”
Those minutes brought orgasms, friendships, crime, the clap. Bleakly holy architectural interventions by Gordon Matta-Clark and street artist Tava’s perhaps half-camp butch murals. Fodder for recountings by David Wojnarowicz and John Rechy. Love, heartbreak, crabs, death. And now, to all that, we must add the photography of Alvin Baltrop, an African American war vet who hung around those piers in a harness stories off the ground, who horsed around with the horny, played mirror to the vain, and caught it all—images that somehow achieve the formal clarity of Julius Shulman, the spellbound sensationalism of Weegee, the lust and light of David Armstrong, and the empathetic curiosity of Catherine Opie. In curator Antonio Sergio Bessa’s The Life and Times of Alvin Baltrop—on view at the Bronx Museum of the Arts through February 9, 2020—Baltrop’s photographs remind us what can be lost and found.
Baltrop was born in the Bronx in 1948. At thirteen, his uncle gave him a camera. When Baltrop was a teenager, his mother, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, is said to have discovered and destroyed a box of her son’s photographs of naked young men—yet a lovely shot of a sun-filled Cloisters nook, taken when he was seventeen, still remains. In 1969, Baltrop enlisted in the Navy, bringing his camera on a warship captained by a polygamous Mormon who kept his crew in the Mediterranean. (An exhibition wall at the Bronx Museum includes formations of warplanes, weaponry, smoke, raindrops, and frayed patches on shoulders.)
“Some of them are like Robert Capa—heroic,” Bessa told me as we examined Baltrop’s photographs from that time. Baltrop’s portraits are even more powerful: developed in medical trays at a makeshift warship lab, they make amiable idols of his friends. In one, a naked man leans into built-in storage across a cabin wall, positioned both casually and perhaps passively, light bathing his back and setting his front into detailed relief. The admiration and lust are palpable. In another, an armpit glows like an oracle. Photos of men sleeping, whether in close-up or from above, detailing their faces or feet or backs, all somehow manage not to implicate a leering eye. “There’s camaraderie,” Bessa says. “Maybe also just a little voyeurism.”
In 1972, Baltrop was discharged from the Navy after swallowing a dozen tabs of Doriden in order, according to a psychiatric report, to “show another man in the ship who was allegedly contemplating suicide what it might be like.” Baltrop said he did it to save the man’s life; his doctor called it schizoid personality disorder. It’s difficult to know the truth—if there is only one—of this action in a military context of brutal institutional racism, and where homosexuality was officially a mental disorder.
Baltrop’s engagement with people in crises would carry through the rest of his life, beginning with his civilian arrival to New York, where his home borough of the Bronx was burning and the flaming creatures of the Village were ascending. He went to the School of Visual Arts on the GI Bill and supported himself by driving a cab, eventually winding his way down to the piers, where hundreds (if not thousands) of men gathered to fuck and sun and moon on the warehouses’ salt-bitten planks. And to be themselves. Like White and all the rest—and particularly like the queer African American community mostly unwelcome at the neighboring bars and sex clubs—Baltrop made a kind of home for himself on those piers.
Soon, he’d sold the cab and was working as a street vendor and jewelry designer and then, finally, as a mover—with a van he lived in and could park nearby. This all might have been due to his fascination with the piers, or a result of the lack of opportunities New York afforded a queer African American artist in the 1970s. Either way, it meant he no longer had access to the ersatz darkroom he’d set up in his apartment. (He made tens of thousands of negatives he never developed.) The art world didn’t seem to take notice: Baltrop showed only twice before his death, once at a gay nonprofit called the Glines, and later, in 1992, in a small show at the Bar—where Baltrop sometimes worked as a bouncer—a mostly forgotten dive that was the Plague Years’ equivalent to Max’s Kansas City.
Meanwhile, Baltrop found others in need: horny strangers, yes, but also men who reveled in showing themselves off for his lens. One of his photographs from the piers sets a pair of young Black guys before windows blazing like Klieg lights. One man stares down Baltrop, with spread legs and bold eyes, beside another, who’s dressed to work with a business jacket draped around his crotch. Other photographs valorize nude men perched on a log, their heads stretched toward the sun or at a wrecked window, showing off their jockstraps (and what’s inside them) or the greased patina of their leathers. They’re handsome and available. All around them are dizzying geometries of architectural collapse.
Baltrop sometimes climbed down from the harness he used to get an overhead view and took his subjects to a health clinic for STI testing, or bandaged kids who’d been beaten up. Of course, something much worse was soon to come. Baltrop moved to the East Village and became known as “an official AIDS educator and Gay Daddy” as the plague decimated the community he knew and documented so intimately. Life and Times ends with a wall of photos Baltrop took of body bags, each almost bursting with tragic loss. Baltrop himself died of cancer in 2004, broke and mostly homeless. Four years later, Douglas Crimp wrote an appreciation in Artforum that sparked interest in his work. But as Osa Atoe asks in a crucial essay on Baltrop in Colorlines, “Why is a Black, poor, queer artist’s work only valuable after he is dead?”
Near the end of Life and Times, an incandescent portrait of activist and drag queen Marsha P. Johnson serves as a reminder that each of the subjects here were actors in their own lives. The image belongs inextricably to Baltrop, who found splendor in the way plaster flutters around a tube-socked calf, the way pockmarked fiberglass does and doesn’t look like the naked leg kneeling beside it, how glass can shatter in the shape of a fan or an akimbo trophy. Most of all, how from a distance—the literal distance from Baltrop to the sources of his admiration, and also the distances enforced by racism, mental illness, the PTSD of being queer in a bigoted world, an interest in looking that supersedes a desire to participate—a world falling apart forms an order for itself. Broken structures become visions of bisecting shadows. Brackets take shape as bedside tables.
You have to look long and hard at this world. And once you do, you see, in the distance, men making love to each other. You see pleasure and kinship and loss. Baltrop’s landscapes of men fucking in ruins, without him, could be Boschian hellscapes or an X-rated Where’s Waldo? His genius was to offer his photographs as evidence of how difficult it is to find what you need, and how beautiful need can be when you see it.
Jesse Dorris is a writer based in New York.
The Life and Times of Alvin Baltrop is on view at the Bronx Museum of the Arts through February 9, 2020.