Perspectives 179–Alvin Baltrop: Dreams Into Glass is the first major solo museum survey of work by this African-American photographer. Born in the Bronx, New York, in 1948, Baltrop died from cancer in 2004 at a Manhattan hospital at the age of fifty-five. His work was rarely publicly presented during his lifetime but has become a focus of art world attention in the last five years, including an article in Artforum magazine and in the New York Times. This exhibition serves to introduce audiences to Baltrop’s visionary talent as a photographer, one who captured the beauty and decay of some of this country’s most iconic urban landscapes as well as the pivotal moments of a society in transition. The survey features both vintage photographs and recent prints created by the artist over a thirty-five year period, including work from the mid-1960s to the early 2000s, a slide presentation of images shot by the artist that were not printed, and a sound collage taken from the artist’s many phone conversations and interviews, as well as rare archival and ephemeral material lent by the artist’s Trust.
Coming of age in the 1960s, Baltrop was aware of the seismic cultural, political, and social shifts taking place around him. Civil rights and women’s rights were raising the consciousness of the nation. Baltrop witnessed firsthand the Countercultural Revolution that also encompassed an unprecedented sexual liberation movement that upended a period of social conformity for heterosexuals as well as for gays and lesbians. Despite the sexual revolution, homosexuality remained widely detested and viewed less as a legitimate self-determination of one’s sexual orientation and more as a pathology from which one could be cured. A bisexual, Baltrop was aware of this unique moment in history and the growing wave of change that it would bring. Working with a twin lens Yashica camera, Baltrop captured these seminal and fleeting moments in the immediacy of a society in transition. His photographs would not only serve as an intimate visual diary but also as a public record of the era.
Baltrop enlisted in the U.S. Navy where he served as a medic from 1969 to 1972. He brought aboard with him his camera ostensibly to create a visual diary of his life aboard the vessel, though the substantial body of work preserved from this period reveals the artist’s growing articulation and evolution of his art. With equal aplomb, Baltrop made himself and his camera privy to the intimate moments as well as the very public routine of his fellow servicemen. The artist revealed both the complexity of life aboard the naval vessel—the homo-societal environment—and his own sexual desire for and among other men. His time in the Navy and the documentary photographic work he would produce would serve to inform his most recognized body of photographs—those of New York’s West Side piers.
Returning to New York in 1972 with an honorable discharge, Baltrop once again turned his eyes and lens on the city that had become a post-industrial wasteland. With its economy in ruins and manufacturing companies moving out of the city, Manhattan’s West Side piers had become littered with empty and dilapidated buildings that stretched from West 59th Street down to Tribeca. For over a decade, Baltrop would obsessively photograph the piers. No other site embodied the microcosm of New York with its constituency of sunbathers, prostitutes, drag queens, artists, runaways, and gay men nonchalantly cruising for anonymous sex. The piers, with its complexity of lure, loathing, desire, and acceptance, became a magnet for the disenfranchised and empowered. And Baltrop would not only capture prostitutes plying their trade, sex acts between men, the plight of runaways, but also the intense beauty in the midst of what was construed by many as a dark, foreboding, and violent site. His commitment was serious. The artist once divulged to his then assistant Randal Wilcox that he had “constructed a harness that allowed him to hang from the rafters and pursue his clandestine shooting with great accuracy and precision.”1
But Baltrop’s forays were not all so unabashedly voyeuristic. Over the decade that he shot the piers, the artist befriended many of its residents and frequent visitors—sunbathers, hustlers, cruisers, and artists. He created their portraits with such authenticity and empathy that their gazes are wide open, neither defiant nor shielded. His works would bear witness the fleeting life in the aftermath of the Stonewall Riots and the advent of GRIDS (Gay-related Immune Deficiency Syndrome, later known as HIV/AIDS).
Beyond the piers, Baltrop devoted himself to the decaying, urban landscape and in doing so, also created an extensive body of work of street scene photographs. By the late 1990s, Baltrop all but ceased making new photographs, but rather combed through an archive of thousands of images he created in the preceding years. In 2003, he was diagnosed with cancer, and he chronicled the last months of his life at a Manhattan hospital.
Perspectives 179–Alvin Baltrop: Dreams Into Glass is organized by CAMH Senior Curator Valerie Cassel Oliver.
1 See Randal Wilcox, “The History That Alvin Baltrop Left Behind,” Atlántica: Journal of Art and Thought, no. 52 (Spring/Summer 2012): pp. 116–39.
This exhibition is the first major solo museum survey of Alvin Baltrop’s work and showcases both vintage photographs and more recent prints created by the artist over a thirty-five year period from the mid-1960s to the early 2000s. The images capture a wide range of subjects including New York’s West Side piers, urban street scenes, life aboard a U.S. Navy ship as well as provocative, and sometimes nude, images of prostitutes and drag queens as well as images of male genitalia. There are some images of nudity throughout the gallery with the more sexually explicit in a back room. Adults may want to walk through the exhibition before deciding whether the images are appropriate for children.