Under The Piers: Alvin Baltrop's Gay New York

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Alvin Baltrop, Friend (The Piers), 1977
Alvin Baltrop, Friend (The Piers), 1977Courtesy of The Alvin Baltrop Trust and Third Streaming, New York

Open Eye Gallery's current exhibition celebrates the wonderful photography of gay African American photographer Alvin Baltrop

Who? Open Eye Gallery's current exhibition has cast light on the little known work of gay African American photographer Alvin Baltrop who beautifully, and obsessively, captured the clandestine activities taking place under New York piers between 1975 and 1986.

What? The waterfront was at this time in a state of abandonment and dilapidation, and played host to an invisible populace who exploited its potential as a spot for gay cruising, drug-dealing, prostitution and smuggling. All this caught the attention of the young Baltrop who, between his shifts working as a taxi driver, would spend hours documenting the crumbling buildings and their intriguing occupants. He was devoted to his project, monitoring his taxi's dispatch radio for police frequency and, with a fervour that mirrored Weegee's, zealously emerging at crime scenes to capture the event. He even made a harness that allowed him to hang from rafters and thus take more accurate and precise images.

"Baltrop's rarely exhibited images stand as a poignant reminder of a long-forgotten moment in New York's history, as well as captivating artworks in their own right"

Why? But while Baltrop's voyeuristic forays produced some marvellous results, it is his portraiture – shots of the friends he made during his time under the piers, from artists to hustlers to sunbathers and cruisers – that is most arresting. A homeless man, wearing nothing but Y-fronts and trainers, stands bathed in light with the all the elegance of a ballet dancer; another man peers out from behind a curtain, his eyes meeting the viewer's unquestioningly as he drinks from a can. As Valerie Cassel Oliver, Senior Curator at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, noted, "Baltrop created their portraits with such authenticity and empathy that their gazes are wide open, neither defiant nor shielded. They see in Baltrop what he sees in them. There is no judgment, no resistance, nor a need to justify their existence." Indeed, this was a time when, forced to hide their sexual preferences from the wider world, the piers' gay community was extremely democratic – a place where rich and poor mingled, unhindered by social prejudice.

It wasn't to last long however. By 1985, the structures along the piers had all been torn down as the AIDS pandemic struck and the city began to demolish areas of "potential contagion." Now Baltrop's images — rarely exhibited in his lifetime, or indeed since his death in 2003 – stand as a poignant reminder of a long-forgotten moment in New York's history; at last garnering the recognition they deserve.

Alvin Baltrop & Gordon Matta-Clark: The Piers From Here is on display at Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool until February 9.

Text by Daisy Woodward