When he died in 2004 at age 55, African-American photographer Alvin Baltrop was largely unknown to the mainstream art world. Fast forward sixteen years, and he is now the subject of a major retrospective at The Bronx Museum of the Arts, was featured in the NY Times, and in 2019, six of his photographs were added to the permanent collections of MOMA. Despite this success, in his lifetime he exhibited his work publicly only twice, including a show in the early nineties at The Bar, an East Village gay bar at 2nd Avenue and 4th Street where he sometimes worked as a doorman and bouncer.
As a Black, working class, bisexual man, Baltrop faced not simply a lack of interest from white gallery owners, but outright racism (one gallerist called him a “sewer rat” while another accused him of stealing the photographs in his portfolio from some other, nameless, white photographer and passing them off as his own).
Born and raised in the Bronx, Baltrop began photography at age 17 with the gift of a camera from his uncle. He served as a Navy medic from 1969 to 1972 (enlisting at age 20) and surviving photos of his Vietnam War-era deployment share life on the SS William K. Pratt (which was actually based mostly in the Atlantic, and not near the Vietnamese coast), his colleagues and friends onboard, and maybe, lovers. Friend and journalist Kelly Cogswell reports that at this time “Al had a white lover from Alabama, William Lee Watson, whose family was in the Klan. After the war, when they went their separate ways, a family Klan friend raped Watson, and later killed him.”
On arriving back to NYC in 1971, Baltrop moved back in with his mother and brother in the Bronx, and soon after, down to the Lower East Side with his girlfriend Alice. Over the next decades he made a living, variously, as a taxi driver, lithographer, vendor, jewelry designer, commercial darkroom printer, mover, and bouncer. He was an East Village fixture, watching over younger queer folk, especially those kids whose families had disowned them. He attended the School of Visual Arts from 1973 to 1975, but did not enjoy his time there.
Baltrop was deeply passionate about the art, craft and science of photography (while in the Navy he built his own darkroom). And although some of his work was destroyed (his teenaged work at the hands of his mother, who disapproved of the subject matter, and later images simply through age and neglect) on his death, in 2004, he left behind tens of thousands of negatives, including over one thousand rolls of film that have not yet been developed. These were preserved by fellow artist Randal Wilcox, who was also Baltrop’s neighbour and friend, and his negatives, prints, and cameras were eventually placed with the Bronx Museum of the Arts.
By 1975 Baltrop left the School of Visual Arts and began a decade long series documenting queer life around the warehouses, sheds and piers off the West Side highway, which had become a popular post–Stonewall cruising and play space for gay and bisexual men, cut off as they were from the rest of Manhattan by the collapse of a small section of the highway.
The city’s financial crisis meant repair and redevelopment of the piers would be decades away. And as a regular visitor, and likely sometimes participant, Baltrop was immersed in pier life. As an insider to the piers community, he had the kind of unique access other documentary photographers can only dream of.
Some writers insist that Baltrop was exclusively gay, but in Making Queer History, Michael J. Carroll writes “Baltrop credited his girlfriend, Alice, as someone who encouraged him to keep photographing the piers from the start of the series in 1975. He and Alice would continue dating until they broke up in 1980. Baltrop went on to meet his future partner of 16 years, Mark, at the piers on the same night of their separation. He would go on to care for Alice and Mark until both their deaths from complications of AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s.”
In this short window – from 1975 to 1986 – Baltrop would visit the piers over and over again, sometimes camping there overnight in the Dodge van he used for his moving business, 1 Man and a Van. In 2OO1, in the community paper The Gully, Kelly Cogswell writes “He’d do five, six jobs a day, then drive his van over to the piers, park right there, open the doors, throw out a bean bag, bring out the wine, set up his camera on a tripod and watch the world go by.”
Some of the images in the piers series are shot at a distance, while others are much closer and more intimate. They are without artifice, or judgment, and taken as a whole, they are a remarkable record of a time and place now lost to us. This body of work delights, and it also opens a window to an important era in New York’s bi and queer history, for those of us who were not there.
We see men of all races and ages cruising, sunbathing, fucking, sucking and otherwise engaging in sexual & BDSM play. We see the architecture of the warehouses and sheds, the piers, views of the river and the highway. We catch sight of several artists who spent time at the piers such as Gordon Matta-Clark, Tava and David Wojnarowicz, alongside young homeless men hanging out, resting, and even doing laundry. We see sex workers. We see neighbourhood bars such as The Ramrod, Badlands, the Stud. We see small, local hotels and commercial parking lots. We see police boats pulling bodies out of the river.
We will have to wait and see what survives on the as-yet-to-be-developed rolls of film, but as a prolific and passionate photographer there are no doubt images of his day to day life with partners Alice, then Mark, portraits of friends and lovers, self-portraits, family life, city life, bisexual life, Black life, queer bars and queer community events, and maybe a few celebrities (intriguingly there do exist a handful of portraits of Marsha P. Johnson, and the Village People amongst his published work). We might see him caring for HIV+ lovers and exes, growing older, managing his own illness, and more. I am super excited for the possibilities.