Desire & Documentary in the Photography of Alvin Baltrop

By Jeffrey Escoffier and Jeffrey Patrick Colgan

Documentary photography in New York City has a long history, going back to Jacob Riis in the 1880s and Lewis Hine in the early twentieth-century with their documentation of poverty and slums. During the 1930s and 40s, Weegee covered the criminal underworld and the world of high society for the tabloids, while Helen Levitt shot scenes of the everyday life of housewives, children and working men. In the 1950s and 60s, Roy de Carava, Garry Winogrand, Fred McDarrah and Nan Goldin managed to capture both the grit and the glamour of New York’s post-war period. By the seventies, however, the glamour was gone, though the grit remained, as New York was overtaken by its industrial collapse and fiscal woes.

Alvin Baltrop was one of the photographers who documented a unique dimension of life in New York City during the 1970s and 80s.  “The Life and Times of Alvin Baltrop” is currently at the Bronx Museum of the Arts and, as the show’s title implies, covers the full range of Baltrop’s work—from his years in the Navy up until the years during the AIDS epidemic.  Antonio Sergio Bessa, the show’s curator has put together a book that brings together the work in the show with essays by the late Douglas Crimp, Adrienne Edwards, Allen Frame, and Mia Kang.

Baltrop was born in 1948 in the Bronx and grew up there. He went into the Navy in 1969 as the war in Vietnam was ratcheting up.  While in the Navy he pursued a longstanding interest in photography and took many intimate pictures of his fellow seamen’s lives on board the ships.  In 1973, not long back from his service in the Navy, and after studying photography for a couple of years at the School for Visual Arts, he worked at a series of odd jobs—among them, selling jewelry and driving a cab. While driving the taxicab he would take his breaks in Greenwich Village down at the piers.

Abandoned, dark, rotting and eerily silent, yet frequented by men having sex, the piers attracted not only the gay men, but also teenage runaways, artists, the homeless and muggers. Ironically it was Baltrop’s girlfriend (he had relationships with both men and women) who had originally told him about the piers and who encouraged his taking photographs there.  Baltrop started taking pictures at the piers in 1975 and did so continuously for roughly ten years—until 1986, by which time most of the piers were torn down. He was fascinated by the piers. “You did not care,” he told filmmaker Joseph Lovett, “about the broken down, the danger, the dirty, the smell, the raunchiness. You cared about meeting someone and having sex. It was cruise, meet, and have sex … inside the piers.” He decided to sell his cab and purchase a van to work as a freelance mover but mostly so he could live in it and park near the piers in order to spend as much time as possible photographing the life at the piers. 

Baltrop was not alone amongst photographers in his interest in the piers. Well known photographers like Arthur Tress, Peter Hujar, Stanley Stellar, Cindy Sherman, and Shelley Secombe as well as lesser-known or amateur photographers such as Frank Hallam and Leonard Fink, both of whom later became known for their photography at the piers, documented the sunbathers, the runaway teenagers, the sex, the art and the performances, or just the rotting piers themselves.  Peter Hujar and Arthur Tress, both well-known photographers, regularly visited the piers to engage in sex and take pictures. Hujar, perhaps best known as the portrait photographer of downtown personalities such as Susan Sontag, Candy Darling, Charles Ludham, and David Wojarnowicz, took a handful of documentary-style photographs at the piers. On the other hand, Tress produced a series of dramatic “staged” photographs of his encounters with men. Frank Hallam and Leonard Fink, neither of them professional photographers, produced, like Baltrop, extensive photographic records of life at the piers. While the work of the three men focused on overlapping aspects of life at the piers, both Hallem and Fink also focused more broadly on the emerging community life of gay men during the seventies. Baltrop’s work was primarily focused on the piers—and on every aspect of the piers: the architectural, the camaraderie, the sex, the dangerousness and even death itself.  

Cumulatively there are probably now thousands of photographs taken at the piers.  The huge photographic archive of the piers was not recognized until relatively recently—only in the last dozen years. You could scour the writing on photography during the 1970s and early 80s without finding a single mention of the photography at the piers. Recognition of the photography at the piers emerged in the 2000s. Filmmaker Joseph Lovett interviewed Baltrop for his documentary Gay Sex in the 70s (released in 2006) in the early 2000s; critic Douglas Crimp wrote a piece about Baltrop for Artforum in 2008; art historian Jonathan Weinberg mounted a show in 2012 at the Lesley Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art that featured the work of many photographers.  One possible reason for the piers’ obscurity is that the trauma of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s had triggered historical amnesia that obliterated the significance of the free-wheeling sexual activities of gay men that had emerged in the 1970s.  

Baltrop’s work is fascinating because of its sheer ambition. He recorded life on the piers almost daily for ten years. That ambition gives his work a historical density and allowed him to record a range of situations and emotions in depth.

“Although initially terrified of the piers, “ he explained, “ 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 the time. To get certain shots, I hung from the ceilings of several warehouses utilizing a makeshift harness, watching and waiting for hours to record the lives that these people (friends, acquaintances, and strangers) led and the unfortunate ends they sometimes met. The casual sex and nonchalant narcotizing, the creation of art and music, sunbathing, dancing, merrymaking, and the like habitually gave way to muggings, callous yet detached violence, rape, suicide, and, in some instances, murder. The rapid emergence and expansion of AIDS further reduced the number of people going to and living at the piers, and the sporadic joys that could be found there.”

Single pictures capture moments, they don’t tell a story. By embedding himself at the piers, Baltrop’s thousands of photographs document an entire decade at the piers—from the sunbathers to the men having sex, to the dozens of dramatic moments such as the overdoses, muggings and random violence, and the dead men, having fallen through the rotten floors, found floating in the river. Unlike the exhibition suggests, these images may not all be of the same pier; however, much of his photographic work does take place at Pier 52, the site of Matta-Clark’s Day’s End and the pier that seems to have found lasting resonance in the memories and imagination of artists and historians.

Baltrop was not the only photographer to choose the Piers as his topic, but he was unique in his treatment of the Piers as a cohesive, ontological whole. Though his gaze was fueled, in no small part, by sexual desire and an obsession with the practice of public sex, his photographic project strives to account for the complex of desires, actions, people, structures, socio-historical manifestations, and individual triumphs or failures (sometimes fatal) that constitute the Piers, broadly understood.

There is within the images of the exhibition a general attraction to sexual activity—to playful and suggestive poses, the posturing of public courtship,  intercourse and nudity—and rightly so, as these were essential aspects of the Piers. But one quickly realizes that these are not simply images of sexual desire. The panoply of objects that caught Baltrop’s photographic gaze speak to a wider project. Cars parked along the water’s edge and the hotels and bars just across the ruins of the Westside Highway provide a context for this place on the margins. The image of a homeless man’s tent and the artwork of pier-goers like Tava demonstrate the diversity of those that frequented the piers.

Baltrop seems to have held an almost mystical appreciation for the pier structures themselves. One photo offers an interior view of a pier with a staggering depth of field and shows the winding corridors and rooms that lead off and away from the camera. The floors are covered in drywall fragments that have fractured over time from the now motley walls, almost obscuring from the eye a man—small in the framing—leaning against a faraway wall, his legs crossed as if he is lost to a revery. We as viewers are brought to mentally recreate the feel, the sounds, and the damp close air of the piers—encouraged by his studies of the piers’ materials and voids.

These studies, however, do not serve to undercut the sexual activity of the piers; rather, they add to the scenes of public sex. One remarkable image (all of Baltrop’s photos are untitled and undated) shows a sliver of public sex viewed through not one but two doorways, each of the three rooms in a different light so that we can just identify a clutching hand in stark relief against the pale thigh of its lover. We are attuned, through Baltrop’s emphasis on structure and material, to the context of this scene.  

One of the exhibition’s photographic prints, depicting two young men embracing naked on a flannel blanket, provides an interesting twist on its subject matter. At first glance it appears to be a solid photo of youthful and passionate sensuality, on closer inspection, the print bears the mark of handling: a fingerprint or palm print  (Baltrop himself?) can be seen on one of the boy’s thighs and again on his exposed lower back. We have, then at this moment, a new chasm opening up in this photographic object: in addition to the lovers’ embrace, the pier environs, and the gaze of the photographer from above and behind, we have evidence of the object’s value long after the depicted scene. One can almost imagine Baltrop holding the image in his hand, the gaze that once directed the camera peering again into the world of his obsession. The fingerprints, however, need not be Baltrop’s. The transportive character of a photograph is not limited to the photographer—though it does gesture towards an interesting and imperfect circularity of gaze, intention, and experience. In our confrontation with these images, we too are brought within the presence of a place—place here understood with all its most complicated baggage of connotations—and the strength of Baltrop’s work is that he succeeds in conveying this presence with a wholeness and tenderness, so that we are not given simply fragments but are left with a feeling of acquaintance with the piers as a whole. As we gaze at these photographs now, not too unlike Baltrop rifling through his prints years after the piers were destroyed or repurposed, we partake of his desire—not necessarily sexual—for that which is fleeting or past. And our confrontation with this inherently unstable yet unique marginal world brings to mind Stanley Cavell’s observation on presence and desire in photography: “photography maintains a presentness of a world by accepting our absence from it.”

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