At the age of 26, Alvin Baltrop began photographing what was going on at Manhattan's West Side piers. The area, full of abandoned warehouses and dilapidated industrial piers, became a temporary home for queer teenage runaways and a cruising spot for gay men. It was a place that was under the radar. People went there to do drugs, muggings were common and so, unfortunately, were rape, murder and suicide. Baltrop's camera captured gay public sex, the public art of muralist Tava, various unknown graffiti artists, as well as pieces by David Wojnarowicz, who also visited the piers. Baltrop documented homelessness, death and the stark decay of run-down warehouses with depth and grace.
Of course, not everyone saw it that way. The mainstream art world, even the gay portion of it, couldn't see the value in Baltrop's work. Hostile reactions to his pictures were common. One curator he showed his portfolio to likened Baltrop to a sewer rat because of the content of his photos. Most art gallery owners and academic art critics could only see dirty homeless fags fucking in an abandoned warehouse, and stopped there.
According to his close friend and assistant, Randal Wilcox, gay art galleries were the most unreceptive to the late photographer's work.
"Al Baltrop endured constant racism from gay curators, gallery owners and other members of the 'gay community' until his death,” said Wilcox. “Many of these people doubted that Baltrop shot his own photographs; some implied or directly told him that he stole the work of a white photographer. Other people who were willing to accept the photographs treated Al as though he was an idiot savant. Other people stole photographs from him."
It didn't take long for Baltrop to get the picture. He subsequently withdrew from the art world and focused more of his energy on photography. As a result of his experiences, his work received very little attention during his lifetime. He had a few small shows in New York, one at the Glines, a gay non-profit, and another exhibit at the East Village gay bar where he sometimes worked as a bouncer.
After his death, his work received a bit more attention. Since 2004, his work has been shown internationally. In February 20008, ARTFORUM published an article on Baltrop including several reprints of his photographs. Most recently, the Whitney agreed to purchase one of his photographs for their permanent collection.
So Alvin Baltrop definitely wasn't in it for money or recognition. The man loved photography and he loved the people and places he photographed. Baltrop began taking pictures in junior high school and continued while he was in the military, taking scandalous photos of his friends in the navy. After he left the navy, he worked as a street vendor, a jewelry designer, and a printer. At one point, in order to spend more time at the piers, he quit his job as a cab driver and became a self-employed mover. He would live out of his van parked nearby the stoop he inhabited while he stayed at the piers for days at a time. His life seemed to revolve around his art.
"I learned photography from some unusual people," said Baltrop about the beginnings of his career. "Old photographers who are dead now, who'd say 'bring your camera, kid, and we'll go out shooting.'"
In the navy, he was a medic, serving during the Vietnam War. They called him W.D. for "witch doctor." He didn't have all of the supplies he needed to do his art, so he made them himself.
"I built my developing trays out of medic trays in sick bay; I built my own enlarger. I took notes about exposures, practiced techniques and just kept going." Later, when he began taking pictures at the piers, he used make-shift harnesses to hang from the ceilings of warehouses, where he watched and waited for hours to capture the moments that made up life on the West Side piers.