Alvin Baltrop’s photograph of sunbathers at the abandoned West Side piers in Manhattan. During the 1970s and ’80s, the piers drew an ever-shifting population of homeless people, teenage runaways, artists and sexual adventurers.CreditCreditvia The Alvin Baltrop Trust; Third Streaming and Galerie Buchholz
By Holland Cotter
Published Sept. 19, 2019
Updated Sept. 20, 2019, 12:07 a.m. ET
New York City is a gateway for fresh art talent but it’s also an archive of art careers past. Some are visible, in the “active” file. Most are buried deep. A few surfaces only after artists have departed, as is the case with the American photographer Alvin Baltrop, who was unknown to the mainstream art world when he died in 2004 at 55, and who now has a bright, tough monument of a retrospective at the Bronx Museum of the Arts.
The show, “The Life and Times of Alvin Baltrop,” is also a monument to New York itself during the 1970s and ’80s, when Mr. Baltrop did his major work. During those decades, the city was physically falling apart. At the same time, it radiated creative energy. Among other things, in the wake of the 1969 Stonewall uprising, it was home base for a new gay consciousness.
Disintegration and rebellion dovetailed in a line of derelict shipping piers that stretched the Hudson River between Chelsea and Greenwich Village. Isolated from the rest of the city after the collapse of the southernmost section of the elevated West Side Highway, the piers became a preserve for gay sex and communion, and the primary subject of Mr. Baltrop’s surviving photographs. These include architectural studies of the piers, but also shots of their semi-residential population of homeless people, teenage runaways, sexual adventurers, criminals and artists, a company that Mr. Baltrop, in effect, joined.
At a glance, he might have seemed an outsider to the adjacent West Village world. Bronx-born, working-class, African-American, bisexual, he came to the scene directly from a three-year stint as a Navy medic. The earliest pictures in the show, which has been organized by Antonio Sergio Bessa, director of curatorial and education programs at the Bronx Museum, were taken aboard the destroyer William K. Pratt, where he was stationed at the height of the Vietnam War.
ImageA Baltrop photograph (1969-1972) taken during his stint as a Navy medic during the Vietnam War.
A Baltrop photograph (1969-1972) taken during his stint as a Navy medic during the Vietnam War.Creditvia The Alvin Baltrop Trust; Third Streaming and Galerie Buchholz
Mr. Baltrop’s photographs of his fellow sailors show images of domestic life at sea (1969-1972).
Mr. Baltrop’s photographs of his fellow sailors show images of domestic life at sea (1969-
1972).Creditvia The Alvin Baltrop Trust; Third Streaming and Galerie Buchholz
Some shots are of the ship itself as a functioning war machine, which, although it never actually went to Southeast Asia during Mr. Baltrop’s time, kept its crew busy with on-deck drills. Far more interesting and experimental are images of domestic life at sea: sailors sunbathing; napping on deck, and rubbing shoulders in tight living quarters. And most daring, are dramatically posed and lighted studies of nude male bodies: torsos, buttocks, genitals. In these images, the mood is erotic without being furtive. These are clearly collaborations with willing models.
After discharge from the service, Mr. Baltrop returned to New York City, where he lived on the Lower East Side with a woman named Alice and made a living as a taxi driver. By this point, just a few years after Stonewall, the piers had become the main stage for an openly expressed gay sexuality, and they drew Mr. Baltrop in. Initially, he used his flexible hours as a cabby to visit and photograph them. Then, to gain more time, he quit driving, bought a van and, supporting himself as a freelance mover, camped there for days and nights on end.
There’s no question that he considered his photographs — particularly of Pier 52, then located at the end of Gansevoort Street, just beyond where the Whitney Museum of American Art now stands — a long-term project, a mix of historical documentation, insider anthropology, and autobiography. Life on the piers, with its definable demographics and culture of confinement, was not so different from that on board a ship, and Mr. Baltrop viewed it both from afar and up close. The more than 200 pictures in the Bronx show are very much about pulling back for the broad view, then zeroing in.
A section of the crumbling West Side piers, (1975-1986), silver gelatin print.
A section of the crumbling West Side piers, (1975-1986), silver gelatin print.Creditvia The Alvin Baltrop Trust; Third Streaming and Galerie Buchholz
Mr. Baltrop’s photo of a man walking amid the ruins, (1975-1986) silver gelatin print.
Mr. Baltrop’s photo of a man walking amid the ruins, (1975-1986) silver gelatin print.Creditvia The Alvin Baltrop Trust; Third Streaming and Galerie Buchholz
Mr. Baltrop viewed life on the piers both from afar and up close. Here, an image of a man lying down on a ledge (1975-1986).
Mr. Baltrop viewed life on the piers both from afar and up close. Here, an image of a man lying down on a ledge (1975-1986).Creditvia The Alvin Baltrop Trust; Third Streaming and Galerie Buchholz
He was careful to give the piers a context. He shot the waterfront neighborhood with its bars (The Ramrod, Badlands, the Stud), its transient hotels, and its commercial truck parking lots (which also served as nocturnal trysting places). And he photographed, at varying distances, the abandoned shipping depots and warehouse sheds on the piers themselves.
As a group, these images are invaluable contributions to American urban visual history, but also to art history. A lot of new art was happening on the piers. In 1975, the New York artist Gordon Matta-Clark sliced a huge crescent-shaped, light-flooded hole in a west-facing wall on Pier 52 and titled it “Day’s End”; a painter named Tava (Gustav von Will) was doing murals, as were younger contemporaries like Mike Bidlo and David Wojnarowicz. Mr. Baltrop recorded some of this work, though it seemed incidental to his true interest. What really gripped him was the grandeur and danger of structural ruin and the people who occupied it.
Look closely at his panoramic views of pier exteriors and you’ll see, in many, the presence of tiny figures, clothed or nude, leaning from windows, lounging around, having sex. And the majority of his shots were of populated interiors. In Pier 52, he used a homemade version of a window-cleaner’s harness to suspend himself from the ceiling and survey activities below. At the same time, because he became a regular, unthreatening presence, he was able to photograph on-the-ground action, much of it sexual, from an intimate vantage.
The piers were not benign places, and Mr. Baltrop knew it. Muggings were common. Murders happened. He took chilling pictures of the police fishing bodies from the Hudson. (One locally famous waterfront habitué, the drag queen and activist Marsha P. Johnson, of whom Mr. Baltrop made a wonderful portrait, was found dead in the river in 1992.) He spoke, later in his life, of “the frightening, mad, unbelievable, violent, beautiful things that were going on” at the piers. He was aware that his own attraction to them had a pathological element. “It became an addiction,” he said. “It was like a drug. It was a drug.”
Mr. Baltrop’s portrait of the drag queen and activist Marsha P. Johnson, (1975-1986).
Mr. Baltrop’s portrait of the drag queen and activist Marsha P. Johnson, (1975-1986).Creditvia The Alvin Baltrop Trust; Third Streaming and Galerie Buchholz
Yet you find little sense of menace in the photographs, most of which are black and white, with a few in color. Raw, cavernous interiors have a church-like luminosity. And, despite repeated images of bare flesh, the work can feel erotic but chaste, the way Thomas Eakins’s paintings of adolescent boys at a swimming hole do. Much has been made of the “classical” poise of explicitly sexual images by Baltrop’s celebrated contemporaries Peter Hujar and Robert Mapplethorpe. But Mr. Baltrop’s a classicist too, just a less self-conscious one.
So why has he been all but ignored until fairly recently? Again, his outsider status as a queer working-class African-American is a big part of the answer. (He had two small shows, one in a bar where he moonlighted as a bouncer, but one gallery owner who saw the pictures referred to him as “a real sewer rat type”; another accused him of stealing work by a white photographer.) Fortunately, toward the end of his life, he met the painter Randal Wilcox, who immediately saw the value of his photography and, after Mr. Baltrop’s death from cancer in 2004, rescued it from what could easily have been obliteration.
In addition to a cache of personal items — identity cards, medical records, cameras — that are in the Bronx show, Mr. Baltrop left behind a handful of beat-up photographic prints and thousands of rolls of film that he couldn’t afford to have processed. In 2008, an Artforum essay by the writer and curator Douglas Crimp (reprinted in the exhibition catalog) put Mr. Baltrop’s name into circulation, and his reputation continues to grow. This fall his work will be included in the rehanging of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. He’s also in Whitney’s collection. (On the site of Pier 52, which served for more than a decade as his studio and sometimes home, a public art project by the artist David Hammons, organized by the Whitney and the Hudson River Park Trust, began construction this week.)
Mr. Baltrop himself might well be hard-pressed today to recognize the part of the city he once recorded. Among the show’s latest images is one of a pier engulfed in flames and smoke. The picture may well date from around 1986, when the “sex piers” began to be demolished by the city, to be replaced by the luxury condos, entertainment centers, and the transplanted uptown museum there today. It’s gratifying to think of Mr. Baltrop, brilliant, persistent, and fully resurrected in the Bronx show, as the true phoenix rising from the ashes.
The Life and Times of Alvin Baltrop
Through Feb. 9 at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, 1040 Grand Concourse; 718-681-6000, bronxmuseum.org.