On ViewGalerie Buchholz
June 29 – August 19, 2017
In one of Alvin Baltrop’s photographs at Galerie Buchholz, the late queer icon and activist, Marsha P. Johnson joyfully smiles at the camera. Her face is nested in voluptuously flowing hair as she leans toward Baltrop’s lens. None of the seventy-two photographs on display are dated with precision. We know this photograph was taken between 1975–86, sometime after the Stonewall uprising and before the AIDS pandemic. The lack of clear historical information is at least partly a consequence of the lack of attention Baltrop’s work garnered when he was making it.
At the Hudson River Piers sheds an overdue light on the career of this overlooked photographer who, not unlike his subjects, faced refusal and disdain during his lifetime as an African-American artist with a camera.
Selected by Douglas Crimp—whose 2008 Artforum article on Baltrop helped bring attention to the artist’s almost forgotten oeuvre—the body of work in the exhibition spans roughly a decade, from the mid ’70s through 1986. In Baltrop’s small, black-and-white photographs, the wrecked and decaying West Side Piers function as the setting for clandestine sexual activities. Collectively titled The Piers, with descriptive subtitles defining the subject or the landscape, the photographs Crimp selected convey melancholy and eroticism.
Certain of Baltrop’s landscape photographs at first appear to be straightforward architectural compositions, drawing on the decaying quality of the urban environment; upon closer inspection one finds human figures in twos or even threes engaged in intercourse. Here, the eroticism is subsumed by the tragic state of the landscape. In other photographs, such as The Piers (man sitting and smoking) and The Piers (man sitting with leg extended), the dynamic is flipped. In these photographs Baltrop’s subjects pose directly before his lens, unhesitant and unclothed. The interior of the piers provides a setting for these men that contextualizes their presence and makes evident the inherent danger of the place.
Other photographs depict increasingly explicit sexual activities. The Piers (couple having sex) or The Piers (handjobs), for example, mark the photographer as an immediate witness of intimacy. However, Baltrop’s vision is not that of a documentarian or an intruder, but of a denizen in search of solidarity. His subjects respond to his camera with elegance and ardor, utterly unrestrained in their sexual expression.
In Baltrop’s pictures, the piers serve as an alternate universe, a desolate refuge where bodies stripped from social norms could engage and unite. In one of the few images that does not feature the piers, Self-portrait (looking away), Baltrop photographs himself in the nude, from behind. His posterior, fleshy back, and shoulder blades take up much of the frame. His hips are canted and his face, reflected in a mirror, betrays a kind of reticence. The camera’s position is low, creating the impression that we are looking up at Baltrop’s backside, perhaps from a mattress on the floor, perhaps from the vantage of a lover. It is an image that conveys much humanity—genuine and unadorned.
ContributorOsman Can Yerebakan
OSMAN CAN YEREBAKAN is a curator and art writer based in New York. Osman holds an MA in Art Management from the Fashion Institute of Technology. Among his fields of interest are fluid states of audience interaction, kinship between literature and fine arts, and performance of identity as political declaration.