The photographer who obsessively documented New York’s early underground gay culture, on the occasion of his first retrospective.
For 11 obsessive years in 1970s and ’80s, the Bronx-born photographer Alvin Baltrop documented the alternative world that existed in this once-run-down part of the city, capturing cruisers, sun-bathers, fornicators, and friends in that brief moment after the Stonewall riots and before the explosion of the AIDS epidemic.
The book presents those photos and others by Baltrop, including many that have never been shown in public, and is publicated on the occasion of the late artist’s first-ever retrospective at the Bronx Museum of the Arts.
Born in 1948, Baltrop picked up photography in his teens. He carried his camera with him to Vietnam, where he served in the navy and made a habit of photographing his fellow sailors. He moved back to New York in 1972, enrolling at the School of Visual Arts. He began shooting the piers in 1975 – a project, thousands of negatives deep, that would come to encompass much of his life. He was so dedicated to it that he quit his day job as a taxi driver and would often photograph at the piers for days straight, living out of a van.
“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 wrote in the preface to an unfinished book of these photographs. “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 led (friends, acquaintances, and strangers), and the unfortunate ends that they sometimes met.”
After a lengthy battle with cancer, Baltrop died in 2004, having exhibited his work very few times during his lifetime.