Long before it was a family-friendly public park flanked by luxury condos, the stretch along the West Side Highway between Christopher Street and 14th Street was lined with shipping piers. Left to decay in the 1950s, the piers had by the 1970s become a meeting place where gay men, drag queens, and trans women could socialize, sunbathe, and have sex, all away from the watchful eye of the NYPD. Though a home for some, it was hardly a safe haven. “Don’t think I’ll ever forget that initial sense of shock,” artist and poet David Wojnarowicz wrote in his journal in the summer of 1979 after his first visit to the piers. It wasn’t the explicit sex that stunned him most; it was the danger — the looming threat of violence — and the depressing decrepitude of a huge expanse of space once thriving and necessary to the well-being of the city.
For over a decade, the Bronx-born photographer Alvin Baltrop (1948–2004) was a regular visitor to the piers, documenting what he saw there and the ways in which a place left to neglect by New York City became a complicated sanctuary for gay men who found freedom among its ruins. Art historian Douglas Crimp has curated a selection of Baltrop’s photographs of the piers, all taken between 1975 and 1986, and all printed by the artist, some visibly bearing the wear and tear of time — like delicate monuments to a once-outlawed place and culture that’s since been disappeared from view. Like the images themselves, the exhibition is aching, beautiful, and tender, placing before us that which for some time remained out of sight.
Baltrop could be simply labeled a voyeur, but his eye was far more nuanced and un-self-serving than that implies. (And don’t photographers by nature all like to watch?) When he wasn’t enjoying the illicit pleasures of the piers, he was snapping encounters between its denizens in close-up: intimate portraits of couples kissing, stroking, sucking, and fucking, surely aware of the artist’s presence. Baltrop also photographed the heavy action from far away, looking across one pier to another, spying someone in a window, or peering through the collapsing architectures to catch a glimpse of what was taking place inside. (The gallery provides magnifying glasses so that visitors can better see what’s going on in the modestly sized prints.) Distance not only obscures a subject — giving details over to the imagination, and tapping a different erotic charge altogether — but in Baltrop’s case it also allows for a clear view of the decaying vistas — the fleeting context — surrounding a community that would soon be ravaged by AIDS.
Endlessly ensnared in the cult of cool, the art world paid little attention to Baltrop’s photographs in his lifetime. (Like comedy, success is all in the timing.) He was a natural, having first picked up a camera in junior high; later he studied at SVA, thanks to the G.I. Bill, but dropped out after a year, finding the classes not worth his time. His work was out of step with Important Conversations in Art, possessing none of the irony, none of the acid-laced cleverness of, say, the Pictures Generation. He didn’t groom or make immaculate his predilections in the manner of a Robert Mapplethorpe, then reigning king of High Homoerotics, whose photographs were sleek, sensuous, and infused with an otherworldly aura. Mapplethorpe’s subjects performed for the camera largely inside the safety of his studio, their sculpted bodies posed to please the artist above all else. His s/m images — of men dressed in tight black leather; privates tied tightly with rope, or revealed between the steely teeth of zippers; or, most notoriously, his own body bent over with the tip of a whip in his anus — titillated in part because of how the artist exercised exacting control over their capture, their composure.
Baltrop’s images of s/m are comparatively untidy. They’re documents of a moment, perhaps staged by the artist, but still feral. On the piers, bound bodies were also unbounded, free to self-present inside the simultaneous threat and safety of this public private space. In one image, a man is hung upside down by his feet, his arms tied around him in what looks like a straitjacket all bunched up around his waist. His testicles are tied so tightly they seem ready to burst under the light of the hot sun above. In another, a man’s tied up again, this time straddling some kind of block, his ass and thighs sitting atop a pile of crumbling cement. If pleasure isn’t necessarily sought in comfort, neither is it always propelled by a desire for transcendence. Of the many values to Baltrop’s photographs, one of the most striking is how earthly his images are, how human, how present for a place and time too few artists and writers and others have accounted for — or lived to account for.
When the city began dismantling the piers in the mid-1990s, Baltrop conducted audio interviews with friends and loved ones who’d spent time there. In 1996, he talked with Mark, a former lover who would die of AIDS. A portrait of the sweet, baby-faced young man hangs in the exhibition adjacent to a set of headphones on the gallery desk where you can listen to him and Baltrop talk. “What did the piers mean to you?” the artist asks him, and Mark remembers experiencing there “a lot of life, a lot of liveliness, a lot of fun. Adventure.” It was where Mark, a boy who’d spent his whole life in Harlem, learned what being gay “meant,” its joys but also its perils in a hostile world. “Do these photographs tell the truth?” Baltrop asks him, and he replies, “They tell the truth to a certain extent,” explaining that he didn’t go to the piers looking for what the artist was looking for. “I didn’t see the things your pictures depict,” he says, and continues on with his own memories, Baltrop listening, taking in Mark’s stories so they can take their place alongside his photographs and together create an even bigger picture.