Kelly Sans Culotte

Gay Mundo

The Legacy of Al Baltrop, 1948 — 2004
Chronicler of New York City gay life since the 1970's.
By Kelly Cogswell

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FEB. 6, 2004. Chances are if you hung out at New York City's West Side Piers during the Seventies, your face or ass lurks somewhere in Al Baltrop's endless stack of negatives. The Bronx-born photographer, who died on February 1st after a long struggle with cancer, would plunk down his tripod and camera in front of his van and shoot everyone who went by.

He'd also climb onto the beams of abandoned buildings, hang unnoticed and uninvited from rafters, and snap from there, or slit a hole in his bag just wide enough for a lens, anything to capture the casual, unguarded moments of the people who lived or cruised at the piers.

Don't imagine some gay Paradise. Al was quick to remind you that alongside the faggots and drag queens, there were also gay-bashers and murderers. He took photos of the corpses that would regularly get pulled from the Hudson. Some of them just teenagers.

The piers were a magnet for young queers kicked out of their houses. Then, as now, they were lucky if an older person taught them the survival basics, how to stay warm, where to bathe, how to protect themselves from tricks. In the midst of that, only Al, or Jean Genet, maybe, would have shot a skinny homeless boy washing clothes and transformed the image into a reflection, not of misery or desire, but of an almost religious grace.

Decades later, young queers remained one of Al's biggest concerns. Sitting like a neighborhood deity in front of the First Avenue laundry or on his East Second Street stoop, he'd lecture all the neighborhood kids about AIDS, and condoms, and that disappearing commodity: pride. And if someone's parents tossed them out for being queer, he'd track them down through the streets and shelters, and do everything he could for them. His estate will benefit young photographers.

I was proud to count Al Baltrop as one of the biggest supporters of The Gully. He encouraged us to take on difficult issues like race and homophobia, damn the torpedoes, screw the critics, and what's next on the agenda?

Lately, there's been renewed interest in Al's work. Not just because of fascination with pre-AIDS life, but because his photos have a timeless, Janus-like quality. They face both forward and backward at a moment when things have changed, but not enough, and not for everyone.

Alvin Jerome Baltrop's life and art will be celebrated on February 28, 2004, 2 - 4 p.m. at St. Mark's Church in the Bowery, 131 E. 10th Street, New York City.

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