Fifteen years after his death, the Bronx Museum of the Arts is giving Bronx-born photographer Alvin Baltrop (1948-2004) the retrospective he’s long overdue. ‘The Life and Times of Alvin Baltrop’ will feature more than 120 photographs taken by the late photographer, a number of which are coming from Baltrop’s personal collection and have never before been seen by the public.
During his career, Baltrop documented life around New York City’s West Side piers in a near obsessive way. The piers, which today are receiving a makeover to make the area into a family friendly park, were very different during Baltrop’s day. In the 1970s, they were a notoriously illicit place, not far from the Meatpacking District, that became a breeding ground for prostitution and drug smuggling. The piers and their run-down buildings, though, were also a haven of sorts for the LGBTQ community, particularly gay men, just before the AIDS epidemic.
Baltrop methodically documented the underground gay community there of nude sunbathers, cruisers, sexual encounters, and even the crime scenes of the piers for about 11 years in the 1970s and 1980s. His photographs, which sometimes verge on the voyeuristic and are often overtly sexualized, give an intimate look into the life of the men who flocked to the piers. With an eye for architecture, he not only documented the men, but also the dilapidated warehouses they inhabited in a stunning manner.
Since his teens, Baltrop photographed his life and experiences. When he enlisted as a medic during the Vietnam War, he took his camera with him and set up a makeshift darkroom photographing his fellow sailors. When he returned, he enrolled in New York’s School of Visual Arts and began capturing life at the piers in 1975. Eventually, he quit his job as a taxi driver to spend more time photographing the piers and even lived out of his van for days at a time. As a gay African American artist, he struggled to be recognized in his own right and sometimes, his work was blatantly copied by others. In 2004, Baltrop died after a long battle against cancer.
‘Although initially terrified of the piers, I began to take these photos as a voyeur [and] soon grew determined to preserve the frightening, mad, unbelievable, violent, and beautiful things that were going on at that time,’ wrote Baltrop in a preface to his unfinished book containing his photographs. ‘To get certain shots, I hung from the ceilings of several warehouses utilizing a makeshift harness, watching and waiting for hours to record the lives that these people led (friends, acquaintances, and strangers), and the unfortunate ends that they sometimes met.’
The exhibition, which acts as a historical documentation as well as a major work of social importance, was curated by Sergio Bessa, director of curatorial programmes for the Bronx Museum. In addition to the works included from Baltrop’s personal archives, photographs have been loaned from private collections to join others that are a part of the museum’s permanent collection. A 200-page catalogue will accompany the exhibition.
‘The Life and Times of Alvin Baltrop’ will run from August 7th, 2019 through February 9th, 2020.