He Captured a Clandestine Gay Culture Amid the Derelict Piers


Yet you find little sense of menace in the photographs, most of which are black and white, with a few in color. Raw, cavernous interiors have a church-like luminosity. And, despite repeated images of bare flesh the work can feel erotic but chaste, the way Thomas Eakins’s paintings of adolescent boys at a swimming hole do. Much has been made of the “classical” poise of explicitly sexual images by Baltrop’s celebrated contemporaries Peter Hujar and Robert Mapplethorpe. But Mr. Baltrop’s a classicist too, just a less self-conscious one.

So why has he been all but ignored until fairly recently? Again, his outsider status as a queer working-class African-American is a big part of the answer. (He had two small shows, one in a bar where he moonlighted as a bouncer, but one gallery owner who saw the pictures referred to him as “a real sewer rat type”; another accused him of stealing work by a white photographer.) Fortunately, toward the end of his life, he met the painter Randal Wilcox, who immediately saw the value of his photography and, after Mr. Baltrop’s death from cancer in 2004, rescued it from what could easily have been obliteration.

In addition to a cache of personal items — identity cards, medical records, cameras — that are in the Bronx show, Mr. Baltrop left behind a handful of beat-up photographic prints and thousands of rolls of film that he couldn’t afford to have processed. In 2008, an Artforum essay by the writer and curator Douglas Crimp (reprinted in the exhibition catalog) put Mr. Baltrop’s name into circulation, and his reputation continues to grow. This fall his work will be included in the rehang of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. He’s also in the Whitney’s collection. (On the site of Pier 52, which served for more than a decade as his studio and sometime home, a public art project by the artist David Hammons, organized by the Whitney and the Hudson River Park Trust, began construction this week.)

Mr. Baltrop himself might well be hard pressed today to recognize the part of the city he once recorded. Among the show’s latest images is one of a pier engulfed in flames and smoke. The picture may well date from around 1986, when the “sex piers” began to be demolished by the city, to be replaced by the luxury condos, entertainment centers and the transplanted uptown museum there today. It’s gratifying to think of Mr. Baltrop, brilliant, persistent, and fully resurrected in the Bronx show, as the true phoenix arising from the ashes.

The Life and Times of Alvin Baltrop

Through Feb. 9 at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, 1040 Grand Concourse; 718-681-6000, bronxmuseum.org.


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