After the persecution and repression of LGBTQ people in the 1950s and 1960s, the counterculture revolution of the late 1960s brought about many cultural changes, especially attitudes about sex. Public nudity became more accepted. In the post-Stonewall era, these new freedoms gave rise to the Gay Rights movement.
The West Side Piers were where many gay New Yorkers gathered in the late 1960s and 1970s, the place where the new sexual freedoms were often played out.
Of course, not everyone was into getting it on outside, yet the options included going underneath the then-elevated West Side Highway or heading to the West Side piers along the Hudson River near Greenwich Village and the Meatpacking District. The dilapidated piers, neglected by the city in those years, were a lawless frontier. Gay men, homeless youth, transgender people, and hustlers all co-existed in what must have been a labyrinth of architectural decay, a place where a guy could find sex anytime of the day or the night. They were also a forgotten part of the city that played host to drug selling, prostitution and suicides.
If you would like a taste of the era, try Edmund White’s Nocturnes For The King Of Naples (1978)
It couldn’t last forever. By the mid-1980s, the structures had all been torn down as the plague had struck and the city began to demolish areas of “potential contagion.”
Powerful, lyrical and controversial, Alvin Baltrop‘s (1948-2004) photographs are a poignant reminder of a long-forgotten moment in history, a groundbreaking exploration of clandestine Manhattan gay culture in the 1970s and early 1980s. The piers were an environment where Baltrop seems to have taken advantage of his eye for the formal qualities of a photograph line, scale, geometry, light, and shadow.
Baltrop documented this scene, unflinchingly and obsessively capturing everything from fleeting naked figures in mangled architecture to scenes of explicit sex and police raids on the piers.
His work is little known mostly because unflinching subject matter, but his talent cannot be denied.
While the outside world saw NYC as the glamorous playground of Warhol and friends and the disco era, Baltrop captures the city’s gritty flipside.
Baltrop was born in the Bronx and spent most of his life living and working in NYC. From 1969 to 1972, he served in the Vietnam War and began photographing his comrades. Back in NYC, he enrolled in the School of the Visual Arts from 1973 to 1975. After working as a street vendor, jewelry designer, printer, and hung out on the bank of the Hudson River on Manhattan’s West Side, where he would produce the bulk of his photographs.
Baltrop knew most of the people he photographed, and they often volunteered to be photographed. The boys and men at the piers often confided in him about their relationships, their housing status, and their work.
He struggled to make it as a photographer, facing racism from the white gay art world. Gay curators often rejected his work, accused him of stealing it, or stole his work themselves. His work was only shown once while he was alive.
Baltrop was diagnosed with cancer in 1999. Poor, sick and without health insurance, curators exploited him for their own financial gain. He died on February 1, 2004.
Since his passing, Baltrop’s work has been show at major galleries in the USA and Europe, including Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, Whitney Museum of American Art, and Bronx Museum of the Arts.
His life work is a snapshot of gay, African-American, and New York City history. Baltrop’s work is collected in a hardbound book Alvin Baltrop: The Piers (2015).
Photographs courtesy of Alvin Baltrop Trust and Third Streaming.