(Untitled) – Alvin Baltrop
“These two kids here [having sex in a photograph], their fathers found out they were gay and threw them out of the house…at one point the piers were full of kids who had been thrown out.” … “This guy [pointing to another model in a photograph] was a banker and this one worked in soap operas. This guy was a part-time minister. This guy was a security man. I knew these people,” he said. “They’d see me everyday. Some people took of their clothes and demanded to be photographed.” – Alvin Baltrop
At the age of 26, Alvin Baltrop began photographing what was going on at Manhattan’s West Side piers. The area, full of abandoned warehouses and dilapidated industrial piers, became a temporary home for queer teenage runaways and a cruising spot for gay men. It was a place that was under the radar. People went there to do drugs, muggings were common and so, unfortunately, were rape, murder and suicide. Baltrop’s camera captured gay public sex, the public art of muralist Tava, various unknown graffiti artists, as well as pieces by David Wojnarowicz, who also visited the piers. Baltrop documented homelessness, death and the stark decay of run-down warehouses with depth and grace.
After his death, his work received a bit more attention. Since 2004, his work has been show internationally. In February 20008, ARTFORUM published an article on Baltrop including several reprints of his photographs. Most recently, the Whitney agreed to purchase one of his photographs for their permanent collection.
So Alvin Baltrop definitely wasn’t in it for money or recognition. The man loved photography and he loved the people and places he photographed. Baltrop began taking pictures in junior high school and continued while he was in the military, taking scandalous photos of his friends in the navy. After he left the navy, he worked as a street vendor, a jewelry designer, and a printer. At one point, in order to spend more time at the piers, he quit his job as a cab driver and became a self-employed mover. He would live out of his van parked nearby the stoop he inhabited while he stayed at the piers for days at a time. His life seemed to revolve around his art.
“I learned photography from some unusual people,” said Baltrop about the beginnings of his career. “Old photographers who are dead now, who’d say ‘bring your camera, kid, and we’ll go out shooting.’”
In the navy, he was a medic, serving during the Vietnam War. They called him W.D. for “witch doctor.” He didn’t have all of the supplies he needed to do his art, so he made them himself.
“I built my developing trays out of medic trays in sick bay; I built my own enlarger. I took notes about exposures, practiced techniques and just kept going.” Later, when he began taking pictures at the piers, he used make-shift harnesses to hang from the ceilings of warehouses, where he watched and waited for hours to capture the moments that made up life on the West Side piers.
Baltrop didn’t come to the piers as an outsider, like some kind of white guy anthropologist living in the Amazonian jungle amongst “the natives.” Baltrop, originally from the Bronx, was part of the community there. Baltrop took thousands of photographs at the West Side piers between 1975 and 1986. He sat at the same stoop everyday at 89 East Second Street and was friends with the folks at the piers. He exposed himself to his subjects as much as they exposed themselves to him. In fact, friends and neighbors noted, he was one of them. Baltrop knew the story behind every face he photographed.
Alvin Baltrop died on February 1st, 2004 though the spirit of his art lives on. May his soul rest in peace.
- Web Site: http://baltrop.org/
- The documentary In the dark we all can be free: the life & photography of Alvin Baltrop:
- A small photo gallery: http://ny.artslant.com/ny/artists/show/87854-alvin-baltrop
- Alvin Baltrop by Douglas Crimp on Artforum February 2008:
- The book, West Street by Emily Roysdon with images from the estate of Alvin Baltrop:
- A video review of the first posthumous exhibition of Alvin Baltrop with an extensive selection of his color photographic works - Famous Accountants Gallery:
- Upcoming exhibition Alvin Baltrop: Photographs 1965 – 2003: