Watching through the windows, peering through the lattice: Alvin Baltrop

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Friends in silhouette, mural composed on wall at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, by DES

At the Bronx Museum of the Arts, Bronx

I had always wanted to visit the Bronx Museum of the Arts, a wish that simmered on slow burner for a couple of years until the day I landed on its doorstep, in time it appears, to catch the archival exhibition of the photographs by Alvin Baltrop. It wasn’t a premeditated  decision, I just happened to be there at the time.

Like in most things that one does not plan beyond taking a train to meet with friends at a famous landmark, this day came with it’s share of surprises.

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At the Alvin Baltrop Archival Exhibition: photo composition includes a fire extinguisher, a television screen and text on the wall – Photo by DES

It was the 24th day of January, Saturn was conjunct Pluto twelve days earlier in the sign of Capricorn (a rare occurrence according to current astrological belief), the day that, according to the stars, signalled transformation and upheaval to occur in the succeeding months. A change was to be wrought in old patterns and cultural material, aspects that would need to be addressed, transformed or even obliterated. Like with all things, I am intrigued by stories and it so happens that the last time such a conjunction occurred was in 1980, in the sign of Libra. The reading of aspects made by celestial bodies has piqued my interest these days, perhaps as a way to understand that which is beyond comprehension, given the uncertain times.

It is interesting that the 80’s saw the the first tax cut (The Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981) among other things, that cut the highest Personal Income Tax rate from 70% to 50% in the USA. Besides, the 1980’s also saw the repeal of sodomy laws in New York among other landmark legislation. This, astrologers would say, aligned with justice of the Scales in Libra, that are purported to bring about balance and fairness.

Significant therefore, to land at an exhibition of one of the less known of the vanguard of the LGBTQ movement of NYC. The day was to appreciate the attempts made by Baltrop, to transform  public perception through assiduous documentation of peripheral acts of the time for a widespread awareness and legitimacy. This more than hints at the struggle for inclusion and justice, like in the Scales of Libra perhaps, a fair thought nevertheless, whatever may be the belief in the power of constellations.

The 70s and 80s in NYC are decades that  seem so far removed, not only in time but  also in appearance, an age when the Westside Piers were derelict, people hustled to survive in parts of Manhattan (they still do); it was the age of freedom and a struggle for acceptance, for some. Strange I think it is sometimes, the labelling of human desire and thereby of sentient beings.

It intrigued me in retrospect, that Alvin used a twin lens Yashica as his first camera. I owned a Yashica camera many years ago and save for the name that resonated with me, I cannot claim to know photographic technique although I love taking pictures.

The photos were striking because they are through the eyes of one that hustled to make ends meet in an era where even his life choices were frowned upon, besides incurring the distaste of his own mother, a practising Jehovah’s Witness. That is a lot for a person to contend with in one lifetime so it is doubly admirable that Baltrop devoted himself to a cause which is what led him to document as background to his subject matter, the transmutation of the architectural landscape of the time of the Westside Piers, Pier 52, the surrounds and the collapsed highway 73, including many other structures that do not exist now. His photos depict a NY that is unrecognisable and remote from the affluent and socially exclusionary metropolis it has grown to become now.

A serial moonlighter in an era not  far removed from the present day gig economy, he spent time photographing, his images expressive of the loneliness, the secrecy of acts enacted on the margins of social awareness, in decrepit surroundings, with a humaneness of  someone in the know.

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The introduction to the exhibit (Photo taken at the Bronx Museum, DES) quoted the biblical passage from The book of Songs.

Song of Solomon 2:9 
9 My love is like a gazelle,
sure-footed and swift as a young stag.
Look, there he is! Standing behind my wall,
watching through the windows, peering through the lattice.

It struck me, made me smile, the idea of voyeurism, in the age of pomegranates and vineyards and now,  in the age of IOS and Android. Was I a voyeur too, taking in this exhibit? What was I meant to feel, to think?

It’s also the man behind the lens that intrigued me, the fact of his constant pecuniary struggles, his devotion to cause, his outpouring of generosity to many that needed him, the homeless he fed and his subsequent death in relative obscurity; it’s make me wonder again of the myriad ways people fill a lifetime that make it meaningful to themselves and others.

It’s a legacy for many to admire, for some to create opportunity for monetary gain, for others to write a blog on, fashion a trail of information and thought for the man behind it all; an attempt for intimate empathy with the one that followed his dream despite the all too familiar struggles of life.

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At the Archival Exhibit, Bronx Museum of the Arts, collection of photographs – Photo by DES

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