Alvin Baltrop (December 11, 1948 – February 1, 2004) was an American photographer. Baltrop’s work focused on the dilapidated Hudson River piers and gay men during the 1970s and 1980s prior to the AIDS crisis.
Bronx-born photographer Alvin Baltrop spent days on end documenting gay life at the piers lining Manhattan’s west side. At times, he did so while living in a van.
Baltrop photographed the westside piers of Manhattan, today where the multi-million-dollar Whitney Museum resides. When a nearby highway collapsed in 1973, it took the city roughly a decade to fix it.
His pictures show the time following the Stonewall riots and before the Aids crisis. Pier 48 was an abandoned wooden structure where gay men sunbathed, cruised and hooked up outside of the glittery world of disco and Studio 54.
“Although initially terrified of the piers, I began to take these photos as a voyeur [and] soon grew determined to preserve the frightening, mad, unbelievable, violent and beautiful things that were going on at that time,” Baltrop once said.
His work has been compared to photos by Robert Mapplethorpe, Peter Hujar, and Gordon Matta-Clark, who made artwork at the very same set of piers. They also take a snapshot of a city in ruin, and a queer community struggling for inclusion. Through the 1970s and 1980s, Baltrop shot nude men sunbathing along the Hudson River and a stunning portrait of activist Marsha P Johnson.
He only had a few exhibitions in his life, one at a gay nightclub. Baltrop, however, gained critical acclaim after Artforum critic Douglas Crimp wrote about his work in 2008. “I don’t think Baltrop saw photography as a career, let’s say he saw it as a passion,” said Bessa the Director of Curatorial Programs at the Bronx Museum. “He had a sophisticated eye for black and white photography and most of the photos here are vintage prints he developed himself.”
His images ranged from men having sex (shot from a distance) to homeless friends who lived onsite. He also photographed random New Yorkers on their daily strolls, the graffiti and the police surrounding crime scenes.
“Cruising areas for gay men always happened but by the ‘70s, it was happening on a much larger scale. People were not hiding in the Ramble in Central Park during the evening; this was going on in the centre of the city during the day,” Bessa says.
For all his careful observations, Baltrop was not a voyeur. “His gaze had a lot of ambivalence. The way he looks at couples is more about desire and longing. His photographs are not pornographic at all. There is a lot of dignity in them,”- Bessa
“I think he was fascinated by what was happening at the Piers and he participated but he also cared for the people. There are stories about him taking kids to be tested for STDs. The values of his mother seeped into his personality.”