An unusual ethical radiance characterizes the overall effect of the 200 or so black-and-white photographs in The Life and Times of Alvin Baltrop, curated by Sergio Bessa. Rarely seen during his lifetime—two recorded shows, at The Giles in 1977 and at The Bar in 1992, took place outside the mainstream gallery circuit—Baltrop’s body of work began to attract attention only in 2008, four years after the artist’s death, when Douglas Crimp published a selection of the photographs in Artforum.
On ViewThe Bronx Museum Of The Arts
August 7, 2019 – February 9, 2020
The earliest photographs in the Bronx Museum show, shot during Baltrop’s time as a medic in the US Navy between 1969 and 1972, show men in and out of uniform, sunning alone on deck or huddled together in the performance of maritime maneuvers, sleeping, peering over the horizon, or peeking out of bunk beds. An unusual document of life at sea at the height of the Vietnam War, these early images demonstrate Baltrop’s deep and long-standing interest in erotically charged homosocial communities. This sustained interest is most fully expressed in the artist’s best known body of work, which documents the gay culture of Manhattan’s West Side Piers between roughly 1973 and 1986.
The piers had been in disuse and a state of severe disrepair since the 1960s, and were isolated from the rest of the city by the 1973 collapse of a section of the West Side Elevated Highway. As a result, in the 1970s and early ’80s the waterfront became, as Douglas Crimp put it in a 2008 essay included in the exhibition catalogue, a site of “artistic and sexual experimentation.” Baltrop’s photographs offer a unique document of both orders of activity, matter-of-factly juxtaposing some of the most compelling views of Gordon Matta-Clark’s Day’s End (1975) with images of men having sex in plain daylight, nude sunbathing, and intimate socializing in various states of undress. As Adrienne Edwards points out in the catalogue, this juxtaposition offers a corrective to the notion that Matta-Clark intervened on an abandoned, disused site—a notion whose homophobic bias is damningly exposed by Matta-Clark’s own acknowledgment that the site was “overrun by the gays.”
Baltrop’s signature compositional format is a wide architectural shot that reveals, upon closer scrutiny, the presence of one or more male figures, often naked or scantily dressed. Whether framed or partly hidden by windows, door frames, or construction debris, the figures are intimately and organically connected with their surroundings, often all but disappearing into them. The task of literally and metaphorically finding their place in the picture requires an active engagement on the part of the viewer, who is thus made solely responsible for what they choose to see. The modest size of the archival prints in the exhibition is crucial to creating this effect. It’s rather unfortunate, then, that in the exhibition catalogue most of the images are enlarged.
It is this transfer of agency to the viewer that makes Baltrop’s images unique among other, better-known, representations of gay sex in the post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS era. Robert Mapplethorpe (to give just one example) deploys an aggressive formalism to aesthetically transfigure the sensational content of some of his images. In contrast, even the most explicit of Baltrop’s photographs offer themselves as a space of exploration and discovery in which the viewer, rather than being compelled to behold the subject in purely aesthetic terms, is invited to share in what might be described as the pensive equanimity of the artist’s outlook. Here is the ethical crux of Baltrop’s project: he presents an experience that, in the language of the time, would have been called deviant as something that simply exists in the world on its own terms, and demands that the viewer actively reckon with their response to it.
Black, working class, and gay, Baltrop was an active and well-known participant in the culture his photographs document. Often living out of his van, which he parked at the piers for days on end, Baltrop would take photographs, cruise, and give advice about matters of sexual health, among other things, to the young men who also made a home there. The photographer’s closeness to his subjects is perhaps most clearly visible in a number of intimate portraits of men (Black and white, young and older, alone or in small groups) who offer themselves to the camera with unguarded frankness, without a trace of either shyness or defiance. Several assessments of Baltrop’s work have remarked on the voyeuristic character of his images in which men are shot from a distance and from what look like hidden vantage points. That these are presumably the same men who appear in the portraits is one of the reasons why, despite Baltrop’s own suggestion that he began taking the photographs “as a voyeur,” I have never been tempted to read his images this way. Moreover, even when the men are barely visible, they are in fact often literally hiding in plain sight.
If any of this seems to invite viewers to romanticize the piers as a kind of gay utopia, the temptation is quickly dispelled by a number of images of dead bodies perfunctorily wrapped in body bags and surrounded by armed policemen—a reminder that drowning and violent crimes were common on the piers. The ethical depth of Baltrop’s work is perhaps most powerfully manifested in his capacity to show both these dimensions of his environment at the same time, without contradiction.