- Alvin Baltrop:Dreams into Glass
In the dark we all can be free.—Alvin Baltrop
The earliest known Alvin Baltrop photograph, The Cloisters (Fort Tryon Park, NYC) (1965), depicts a solitary woman seated in the shadows before a large glass window that is infused with light. The artist was just seventeen and already experimenting with the twin-lens Yashica camera an uncle had given him. Some seven years later, Baltrop would draw upon this composition and its tension between cast light and consuming shadow to create his most recognized body of work, a series of photographs taken at the abandoned West Side piers located along the Hudson River in New York.
Born in the Bronx, New York, in 1948, Baltrop died from cancer in 2004 at a Manhattan hospital at the age of fifty-five. His last photographs, dated 2003, were taken while he was in hospice. What lies in between that 1965 photograph at The Cloisters and his last self-portrait in 2003 are around a thousand vintage and duplicate prints, contact sheets, and negatives, as well as a wellspring of archival material. This posthumous exhibition features but a fraction of what Baltrop produced during his lifetime, but it still points to the breadth of his work, moving from classical black and white to tone-on-tone color photography.
Coming of age in the 1960s, Baltrop was aware of the seismic cultural, political, and social shifts taking place around him. Civil rights and women's rights were raising the consciousness of the nation. The United States's involvement in the war in Vietnam only served to intensify a widening generational divide between parents that supported the war and their children that rallied against it. And the sexual revolution was expanding beyond the infamous "Summer of Love" in the San Francisco Bay Area to reach New York, where in 1969 a routine police raid on Stonewall Inn—a Greenwich Village drinking establishment frequented by homosexuals, lesbians, and drag queens—sparked the beginning of the modern gay rights movement. Despite the sexual revolution, homosexuality remained widely detested and viewed less as a legitimate self-determination of one's sexual orientation and more as a pathology from which one could be cured.
Seminal moments like this would go on to play a pivotal role in the artist's life. His early works (1965-1968) offer evidence that as a Bronx teenager Baltrop traveled extensively around Manhattan taking photographs; he even frequented the West Village and Stonewall Inn (Baltrop). During that period, he undertook no formal study in photography, [End Page 65] but was mentored by older photographers who befriended him. Baltrop also absorbed the photography collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which featured the work of American, European, and Japanese photographers. Modernist photographers seemed especially influential on Baltrop's initial practice: what survives of this early work is reminiscent of the diverse styles of documentary street photography of Paul Strand, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Berenice Abbott, or Helen Levitt.
Also present among these works are two self-portraits (c. 1966-1967) that serve as a prologue to the future trajectory of Baltrop's interest, going beyond the streets he first photographed. The self-portraits show a nude Baltrop posing with a towel hung from one shoulder. Photographing himself in recto and verso, Baltrop clearly gave thought to the composition and scale of the image, thus projecting a sense of voyeuristic intimacy—the artist's own glimpse of himself. The setting was most likely Baltrop's own bedroom, as indicated by the rolls of film resting on the dresser. Invited into a private moment, we witness the artist in an act of willful transgression. Raised in a single-parent home with his older brother, James, he was often in conflict with the restrictive religious doctrines of his mother, Dorothy Mae Baltrop, who was a devout Jehovah's Witness.1 The strategically torn paper on the recto self-portrait—just above the temple to create a horn-like protrusion—provides a glimpse into Baltrop's mischievous nature.
Not long after he took these photographs, Baltrop enlisted in the United States Navy, where he served as a medic from 1969 to...