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.
Of course, not everyone saw it that way. The mainstream art world, even the gay portion of it, couldn’t see the value in Baltrop’s work. Hostile reactions to his pictures were common. One curator he showed his portfolio to likened Baltrop to a sewer rat because of the content of his photos. Most art gallery owners and academic art critics could only see dirty homeless fags fucking in an abandoned warehouse, and stopped there.
According to his close friend and assistant, Randal Wilcox, gay art galleries were the most unreceptive to the late photographer’s work.
"Al Baltrop endured constant racism from gay curators, gallery owners and other members of the ‘gay community’ until his death,” said Wilcox. “Many of these people doubted that Baltrop shot his own photographs; some implied or directly told him that he stole the work of a white photographer. Other people who were willing to accept the photographs treated Al as though he was an idiot savant. Other people stole photographs from him."
It didn’t take long for Baltrop to get the picture. He subsequently withdrew from the art world and focused more of his energy on photography. As a result of his experiences, his work received very little attention during his lifetime. He had a few small shows in New York, one at the Glines, a gay non-profit, and another exhibit at the East Village gay bar where he sometimes worked as a bouncer.
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.
"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." Baltrop continued, "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."
Baltrop always gave credit to his girlfriend at the time, Alice, for encouraging his photography work and pushing him to get better. In his personal life, Baltrop had long-term relationships with men and women but never really put a label on his sexuality. He disliked the word "bisexual" because, according to his friend Randal Wilcox, Baltrop felt it was too politically correct and sounded fake. He preferred being called "gay" to being called "bisexual."
Alvin Baltrop was an Afrocentric brotha, "a tall, funky, elegant mix of Africana and military," as a friend once described him. Before cancer took its toll on the photographer, he was a big guy. He often wore kufis and dashikis, big jewelry and carried a large cane.
Baltrop discovered he had cancer in the late 1990s. On top of dealing with his illness, life added insult to injury when economic issues and hovering vultures from the art world came into play. Baltrop could not afford health insurance and ultimately did not receive adequate care for his condition. He ended up dying in 2004 due to substandard treatment at a veteran’s hospital.
According to Wilcox, during the fall and winter of 2003 as he was dying in various hospitals, a gay filmmaker decided to pay Alvin Baltrop a visit. The filmmaker came to ask Baltrop to give away the rights to all of his photographs. The request was insulting. This particular filmmaker had a history of taking advantage of terminally ill people.
"He used to work for ABC," said Wilcox, "and he was able to have the first televised interview of a person with AIDS in the early 80s. He fired the guy he scheduled to interview because he looked ‘too healthy,’ and hunted and put the most sickly person he could find in front of a camera, so he could basically say, ‘This is a gay person. This is a gay person with AIDS.’ What is the gay equivalent of an ‘Uncle Tom’?"
If Baltrop’s photographs had little value to those people during his life, why would they then begin to have value after his death? Why is a Black, poor, queer artist’s work only valuable after he is dead?
"The losers who rejected him or would have rejected him had they known him are now trying to canonize him as some kind of ‘hero,’" fumed Wilcox. "In short, now that Al is dead, they are willing to accept him. This is appalling."
However, there are those of us who see the work of Alvin Baltrop and immediately understand the language he speaks with his photos. Why does so much art have to be filtered through the doors of white-owned, high brow galleries before it makes it to the general public? Who are the people who decide what art gets seen and what art doesn’t, and what is their agenda?
Alvin’s story reconfirms my belief that people of color and queer people desperately need our own independent media to cover our own work. We also need to make it a point to work within communities who take racism, classism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia and other forms of bigotry seriously. Mainstream white-owned media won’t cover our art unless it matches up with their stereotypes of us. When they do cover our work, they don’t do it justice or they try to whitewash it. Wilcox has always sent an assortment of photographs to the few publications that have been interested in covering Baltrop’s work. Even though Baltrop photographed plenty of people of color, the vast majority of magazines are much more likely to publish the photos he took of white males.
We can see by the decisions Alvin Baltrop made throughout his life that he didn’t make art because he wanted to be famous or get rich. When I ask to see the creation of more Black media for Black art and more queer media for queer art, I’m not necessarily hoping that more Black & queer artists get famous. I’m hoping that more Black artists receive support and affirmation so that they are able to thrive as artists while they are alive.
Besides being beautiful pieces of art, Baltrop’s pier photographs help us piece together our queer history. The piers brimmed with activity during the time period after the Stonewall riots and before the AIDS epidemic ravaged gay communities in New York and across the country. Ultimately, it was AIDS that helped bring an end to the glory days of the West Side piers. The disease wiped out numbers of people who used to visit them regularly. New York City officials eventually used AIDS as an excuse to demolish the site by claiming that doing so would stop the spread of the disease.
The West Side pier photographs are Baltrop’s main body of work, although he photographed many different people and places over the course of his career. He could only afford to print a small number of the pictures he took, leaving thousands of unprinted negatives that have yet to be seen by the world.
"One of the many, many reasons why the pier photographs are extraordinary and important," says Wilcox, "is that Al documented a certain group of gay people in a specific place at a specific time in a way that didn’t glorify, demonize, exaggerate or stereotype, ultimately showing [his subjects] as being human beings."
Each of Baltrop’s photos resonates gentle humanity, even the ones of dead bodies and broken buildings. His gaze is understanding instead of judgmental, which is exactly how you have to look at his photographs in order to appreciate them.
Alvin Baltrop died on February 1st, 2004 though the spirit of his art lives on. May his soul rest in peace.
This piece originally appeared in Shotgun Seamstress
Osa Atoe is the founder and executive editor of Shotgun Seamstress, a zine by and for Black punks, queers, feminists, artists and musicians.