In an interview, gender-queer author Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore declared, “If I had to choose one piece of art that has been the most damaging to urban life over the last few decades, I would choose”—wait for it—“Patti Smith’s Just Kids because she facilitates this mythology of New York, that fame is a chain of coincidences that happened because of her great talent.” I was thrilled at Sycamore’s iconoclastic jab. It was part of a larger point she was trying to make about nostalgia as a form of violence.
Smith had her first art exhibition in 1973, the same year a sixty-foot chunk of the elevated West Side Highway in New York collapsed under the weight of a truck carrying asphalt meant to repair said highway. The cave-in resulted in a gateway of rubble that led to the abandoned industrial piers where Alvin Baltrop (1948–2004) hung out for days at a time, taking photographs of men cruising, fucking, casually doing drugs, or just lounging around in the sun. Hannah Hoffman Gallery’s fabulous and tender presentation of Baltrop’s original prints, most of which date from 1975 to 1986, in various states of distress or neglect was titled simply “Alvin Baltrop.” During those years, when punk and street photography were metastasizing a mythology of New York as the antithesis of Los Angeles (grit as opposed to gloss, authenticity as opposed to glamour), Baltrop stayed loyal to the piers, quitting his cabdriver job and becoming an independent mover, buying himself more time to take pictures, though he made less money. He took voyeuristic, long-range shots that emphasized the piers’ ramshackle geometry, such that viewers needed a minute to notice the tiny figures butt-fucking in the foreground (as in The Piers [exterior with couple having sex], 1975–86) and candid close-ups of more exhibitionistic inhabitants (such as The Piers [man undressing], 1975–86). Many of Baltrop’s group shots do that thing we love photographs to do, which is incidentally resemble a Renaissance composition. The Piers (three men on dock), 1975–86, does this, although it also reminds me of Thomas Eakins’s painting The Swimming Hole, 1884–85_. The posture of the hip-cocked youth in Eakins’s canvas feels echoed by the main subject in three men on dock. _The punctum lies in the dilapidated environs, signaling the danger surrounding this pocket of leisure the men are enjoying. Also, the socks . . .
Baltrop received very little recognition in his lifetime. He had a couple of exhibitions at gay bars in Manhattan’s East Village, while—per artist Tionna Nekkia McClodden—“whiter, cooler, traditional archive-ready artists,” including Diane Arbus, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Garry Winogrand, were celebrated in their own lifetimes for their documentation of marginalized characters, recherché sex, and “street life,” respectively. Baltrop did all three at once and never got his due.
“Street photography” is an impossible onion of visual landscapes. No matter how many layers get peeled back, we remain far from approaching some hidden core, some ur-image of urban life at its most authentic. I wonder what people mean when they talk about “queer space” in relation to his pictures. I try to remember that queerness isn’t solely based on the kind of genitalia you prefer to gag on; it’s also about your relationship to power. As a bisexual Black man in the ’70s, Baltrop knew a bit about it, yet lived with radical empathy. This is a man who, while serving in the navy, gulped a handful of Doriden in order to save an allegedly suicidal shipmate by showing him what killing oneself might look like. Queer space here may have something more to do with Baltrop’s eye and heart, where he held the subjects of these images before deciding to transpose them into photographs. What moves me is how his work shines a light in darkness, not to illuminate anything in particular, but to point us in the direction of what lies beyond—a vision of urban life more generous than any form of self-serving mythology, or than the dangerous, genericizing aspects of nostalgia. These photographs don’t make us yearn for a bygone New York so much as raise the question of whose New York we are actually yearning for.