Profile: Alvin Baltrop (1948-2004)

Alvin Baltrop 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.

Early life

Baltrop was born in 1948 in the Bronx. He discovered his love of photography in junior high school. Baltrop received no formal art education; older photographers from the neighborhood taught him different techniques and how to develop photos himself.

Career

Baltrop enlisted in the Navy as a medic during the Vietnam War and continued taking photos, mainly of his friends in sexually provocative poses. He built his own developing lab in the sickbay, using medic trays for developing trays. After his time in the Navy, Baltrop worked odd jobs as a street vendor, a jewelry designer, a printer, and a cab driver. Because he wanted to spend more time taking photos at the Hudson River piers, he quit his job as a cab driver to become a self-employed mover. He would park his van at the piers for days at a time, living out of his van to take pictures.

From 1975 through 1986, Baltrop took photographs of the West Side piers, where he was a well-known member of the community. Baltrop knew every person he photographed, and people often volunteered to be photographed. Younger boys and men at the piers often confided in him about their sexual orientation, their relationships with their families, their housing status, and their work.

Baltrop’s photographs of life on Manhattan’s West Side piers was an area directly connected with “cruising, anonymous sex, and the occasional art intervention.”

Baltrop captured the gay cruising spots and hookup culture that existed in New York City before the AIDS epidemic. Baltrop’s photographs not only captured human personalities, but also the aesthetics of the dilapidated piers. His life work is a snapshot of gay, African-American, and New York City history.

Baltrop struggled to make his way in the art world, facing racism from the white gay art world. Gay curators often rejected his work, accused him of stealing it, or stole his work themselves.

Late during the 1990s, NYC artist John Drury, who knew Alvin from their shared neighborhood — Drury living on Third Street with his wife, and Baltrop on Second Street, in lower Manhattan — befriended the artist and recognized the photographer’s unique abilities, nominating him for a Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award for the Arts. Alvin Baltrop had few exhibits in his lifetime; his work gained international fame only after his death.

Personal life

According to one journalist, Baltrop came out as gay at fourteen years old. Baltrop had long term relationships with men and women, but preferred identifying as gay.

Baltrop was diagnosed with cancer in the 1990s. Impoverished and without health insurance, curators and filmmakers attempted to exploit him for their own financial gain. He died on February 1, 2004, at the age of 55.

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