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The first posthumous solo exhibition in the United States by the late African American photographer, Alvin Baltrop: Color Photographs 1971–1991 also marks the only extensive survey of his color work, featuring dozens of previously unseen images. This exhibition—a large, engaging body of work by an artist who made what he wanted to make without compromising his vision—is a true rarity. Further, all the photographs will be destroyed on the last day of the show, and copies of a catalogue designed and published by Famous Accountants will be available for sale.
An aesthetic and historical contemporary of such New York artists as Peter Hujar, Nan Goldin, and Stephen Shore, Alvin Baltrop is primarily known for his black-and-white photographs of the abandoned piers and warehouses on Manhattan’s West Side, taken between 1975 and 1986. His color work, though, has remained a secret. Randal Wilcox, a friend and assistant to the artist and a Trustee of the Alvin Baltrop Trust, recalls the discovery: “In 2003, I found literally hundreds of 35-mm slides stuffed in one of Al’s bookcases. I was shocked that so many striking images were purposely buried for years. When I asked Al why he hadn’t printed them, he scoffed, ‘Eh … The color stuff is good, but it don’t impress me.’”
Wilcox continues, “Even though Al didn’t have a lot of money, he was still interested in making prints of the photographs toward the end of his life. Alvin Baltrop: Color Photographs 1971–1991 honors his wishes, and the Famous Accountants show will hopefully expand the current view of his work.”
Realized as inkjet prints, Baltrop’s color slides portray the denizens of the Hudson River piers—nude sunbathers lounging, cruisers seeking illicit sex, friends hanging out—but they also present a diverse range of city subjects, some shot with a camera concealed in a bag that he designed specifically for this purpose. In private, Baltrop took graphic close-ups of male and female genitalia adorned with fluids, jewelry, and beads, forming faux-ritualistic diadems that are plush and vivid, yet formal and abstract. Photographs of a shotgun-wielding man in an alley, or of a fallen body in front of an abandoned car, suggest crime scenes, epitomizing the legendary grittiness and violence synonymous with New York just a few decades ago.
Born in the Bronx in 1948, Baltrop began taking pictures in junior high, a passion that continued during his time as a Naval medic in Vietnam and through his years living in the East Village. He developed cancer in the late 1990s and died in Manhattan in 2004, age 55. Baltrop’s photography received little attention during his lifetime—it even provoked hostile reactions from curators and dealers—but interest in the work has surged in recent years, including a cover story in the February 2008 Artforum. Several images can be seen in Mixed Use, Manhattan: Photography and Related Practices, 1970s to the Present, on view at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid.