Alvin Baltrop: Sex on the piers and other formal abstractions – thoughts on “Dreams Into Glass” at CAMH

(quoting from a recent email to a friend)

Dear X (Spencer Douglass),

WHILE YOU ARE IN HOUSTON YOU HAVE TO GO SEE THIS SHOW: Alvin Baltorp. total homo hero. photographed his life – as a sailor in the navy, on the piers in NY, and later working with AIDS victims. the show is up through October 19. when you are there, check out the list of exhibition supporters – it is like a who’s who of good people, hetero and queer. There is a slide show that david and i watched, riveted to the space. it is haunting and smart and honest and beautiful. We stayed long enough that I got out of the ooh! look at that! prurience phase with the piers photos and could appreciate the formal beauty and the psychological intelligence of his pictures. plus, many of the photos are vintage prints and so are dusty, cracked, faded… just like time and memory. (I could go on. I feel like I will be thinking about this work for a long time)

Have a blast in Texas. Tell me stories when you return.


photo by Alvin Baltrop, from Famous Accountants exhibition “Alvin Baltrop: Color Photographs 1971 – 1991” (September 2010)

photo by Alvin Baltrop, from Famous Accountants exhibition “Alvin Baltrop: Color Photographs 1971 – 1991” (September 2010)

photo by Alvin Baltrop, from Famous Accountants exhibition “Alvin Baltrop: Color Photographs 1971 – 1991” (September 2010)

So right. Before the fun of seeing naked bodies, the initial attraction was that I was seeing photographs, small size rather than printed large. Then it was that many of them are black and white (I am a sucker for the lovely crispness and contrast of b/w photos) (eek, and then I started to freak out about the beauty of the color photos!) and then my breath began to catch at the back of my throat, for even as I appreciated the beauty and abandon of the characters in his photographs, grief rose in my heart at the fact that many of Baltrop’s subjects in the piers photos died in the AIDS pandemic when it first swept the country and my community. I wasn’t there, I didn’t die, but AIDS touched everyone I knew. That someone who was present in that place and time cared to take pictures and save part of the experience feels like a great gift.

Alvin Baltrop, Untitled, 1975, photo from Bronx Museum benefit auction

Alvin Baltrop, “Untitled,” 1975-1986. Gelatin-silver print. 4 1/4 inches. Courtesy of The Alvin Baltrop Trust and Third Streaming , New York photo from Contemporary Art Museum Houston

lvin Baltrop, “Untitled,” 1975-1986. Gelatin-silver print. 5 2/3 x 4 inches. Courtesy of The Alvin Baltrop Trust and Third Streaming , New York photo from CAMH

Alvin Baltrop, Untitled, 1975-1986, Gelatin-Silver Print, 5”x8.5” photo from Julie Chae Writings

Writer Oso Atoe, at Colorlines, offers some perspective on 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.” Continue reading…

photo from Queer Arty Party Tumblr

The Cloisters (Fort Tryon Park, New York City), 1965. Gelatin-silver print 7 × 9.5 inches. photo from Thirdstreaming Alvin Baltrop Trust

The Piers (three men standing on dock), 1975-1986. Gelatin-silver print, 8 × 12.5 inches. photo from Thirdstreaming Alvin Baltrop Trust

The slideshow soundtrack was of phone interviews Baltrop did with people who hung at the piers, and I think also with people during the AIDS crisis and in its aftermath. These stories were variously mundane and transcendent and often were triumphant in the sense that voices survived.

The sense of the personal was all over this show: Baltrop’s life and the lives he chose to photograph were seamlessly embedded in his art, as were his aesthetic decisions. Given that at the time, as today, conceptual strategies for making photos predominate, Baltrop’s work feels very political. To me Baltrop was a great artist because his photos point to and come from life, they bring up all the fascinating, charged questions of humanness and queerness and form and color and identity and love and hate and economies and distribution of goods and he photographed art outside museums and people inside them and he learned from other artists and he die not make photographs as signifiers or simulacra; he did not make art about art. Given the current prevalence of photography for art’s sake in Los Angeles and elsewhere, I would recommend this show and the catalog to everyone who is concerned with looking at art.

frontispiece (The Piers (man standing on teh dock) 1975-86)


page 50

page 16 (Navy (portrait of a man), 1969-72)

page 53 (Street Scene (tossing basketball), 1974)

page 52 (detail) (The Piers (person standing alone in West Street parking lot), 1975-86)

page 28 (determinedly soft-focus) (The Piers (Scumbag), 1975-86)

page 33 (detail) (In the family (The Piers), 1975-86)

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