Alvin Baltrop, Homoerotic Photographer

Alvin Baltrop, American Beauty (Navy), 1970. Printed 2011

There’s an interesting thing about so-called “homoerotic” or “gay art”. For me, the thing that so most interesting about it is that if you look on Facebook and you Google homoerotic art what you often come up with is a lot of shirtless man with beautiful bodies, either in photographs or paintings and drawings, that aren’t very political and are really just designed to titillate or provide visual pleasure. In the groups that I visit on Facebook that’s almost always the case that content or iconography are close second to really showing off the male body. I don’t think this is a bad thing but there are some artists who are actually sort of political in how they have addressed or approached homoerotic imagery.
Alvin Baltrop, Three Navy Sailors, 1969–72. Gelatin silver print, 8½ × 12¾ inches..

A photographer named Alvin Baltrop born in 1948 and died in 2004 was a New Yorker who was born in the Bronx and lived through the sexual revolution of the 1960s. What makes him such an interesting character is that he was bisexual but did a lot to document the underbelly of gay culture that wasn’t accepted and really wasn’t liberated during the sexual revolution of the 1960s that was really all about heterosexuality.

His photographs are an interesting mix of formal beauty and challenging content. In some ways it really relates to his role as a semi-closeted man who also was a member of the Navy. This is long before don’t ask don’t tell and he did get an honorable discharge. Some of his photography is in direct reference to his experience in the Navy as a medic and he was able to explore and express home or erotic longing in the military almost clandestinely.

The naval series completed between 1969 in 1972 are actually very beautiful photographs that almost seemed to take their cues somewhat from the social realists from the WPA during the depression. Except in this case he travels the knife edge of showing what’s acceptable in the military and also those hidden moments. Aficionados of photography can also appreciate his photographs from the point of view of a beautiful understanding of value structure and composition. When I look at these photographs I’m amazed at how relevant they were for the time and how not known Baltrop was during his life, partially because they were so challenging, and also because America was simply just not liberated enough for mainstream culture to look at these kinds of images on blogs and Facebook.

After his honorable discharge from the Navy Baltrop, born and bred in the Bronx, shifted his eye to a subculture of illicit sex and a slightly skanky underbelly that was part of New York culture on the recently abandoned piers in Manhattan. The shipping industry had taken a bit of a dive and tons of warehouses and docks were deserted. As is the case in semi-abandoned areas it’s almost a free zone for hustlers, drug dealers, junkies, and of course individuals looking for illicit relationships and sex. Baltrop did a wonderful job documenting this alternate world which in his photographs almost seems surreal and in a strange way not threatening but almost friendly.

Again in the series of photographs he did an incredible job in terms of the actual beauty of the photograph. He plays with chiaroscuro and light and shadow. Featuring the male body almost like Thomas Eakins would almost a century before. He had an eye for physical beauty, and somehow flawlessly integrated this with the documentary style that features a world most of us wouldn’t care to enter but have a fascination with.

For those of you who are interested there is a wonderful new book of his photography available on Amazon and here’s a link.

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