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Lost Boys: Amos Badertscher’s Baltimore

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Featuring nearly 200 photographs and extensive accompanying texts, Lost Boys: Amos Badertscher’s Baltimore (in UMBC’s Albin O. Kuhn Gallery, through December 15) is a potent and complex demonstration of one man’s abiding fascination with Charm City’s demimonde. From the 1960s to the early 2000s, Badertscher shot a motley parade of rent boys, homeless gamins, slinky twinks, club kids, and drag queens, many of whom he befriended and then watched with interest over the years.

This show, curated by Beth Saunders, offers a thorough and responsible account of his artistic career: a chance to look through the lens of a significant queer portraitist. But it serves, too, as a sexy and spirited challenge to traditional norms, a sympathetic depiction of fringe cultures—and an unresolved exercise in thorny, asymmetrical power dynamics. The result is a diverse, fascinating, and complicated archive.

It’s also, in several senses, an elegy. Many of the individuals photographed by Badertscher died young, due to the AIDS epidemic, substance abuse, violence, or societal neglect. In some cases, their biographies are evoked in affecting handwritten accounts that the photographer later added to his prints, or in printed excerpts of conversations between the photographer and Hunter O’Hanian (who served as consulting curator, and who spoke with Badertscher during the planning stages of this show). Those conversations acquired a special resonance in the wake of Badertscher’s death, at the age of 86, this past July. Moreover, several of the gay bars and clubs in which Badertscher met and sometimes shot his subjects—the Hippo; Grand Central; Club Bunns—are now shuttered. This is a show, then, shadowed by loss.

But the predominant tone of the photographs is not melancholy. Rather, it’s a combination of relentless energy and resolute assertiveness. And, as the first career retrospective of Badertscher’s work staged in the U.S., this show offers a compelling case for the historical importance of his work (which was also featured in a 2020 survey at Berlin’s Schwules Museum, and will be on display in a concurrent show opening at Clamp, a Manhattan gallery, on September 14.) Much like Badertscher’s models, who confidently vogue for the camera, Saunders’ exhibit firmly rejects a lengthy history of marginalization.

 

Installation view of Lost Boys: Amos Badertscher’s Baltimore, Photo by Research Graphics at UMBC
Amos Badertscher, Portrait of a Hustler, 1978, Gelatin silver print, Courtesy Amos Badertscher Estate
Amos Badertscher, A Letter from Jail, 1979, Gelatin silver print, Courtesy Amos Badertscher Estate
Much like Badertscher’s models, who confidently vogue for the camera, Saunders’ exhibit firmly rejects a lengthy history of marginalization.
Kerr Houston

Five thematic divisions support a more nuanced set of claims. One section, for example, concentrates on experimentation, foregrounding Badertscher’s forays in solarized printing and his use of a dryer sheet to generate blurred effects. Another draws attention to the role of Baltimore’s urban fabric and postindustrial history in a group of photographs shot in highway underpasses, railyards, and city alleys. Ultimately, though, each section coalesces around Badertscher’s enduring commitment to representing individuals in revealing and beguiling ways.

Raised in pre-Stonewall, Catholic Baltimore, educated at Union College, and having served as an Army reservist, Badertscher fully understood that an unclothed body can be, depending on the circumstances, an art historical trope, a money making instrument, a vehicle for pleasure, or a tender gesture of trust. In The Small Street Economies, a photograph taken in 1976, a gorgeous shirtless young man, his jeans hanging seductively low on his hips, stands in lithe contrapposto and peers directly at us with an affectless expression. A coarsely rendered tattoo on his arm bluntly offsets his carefully feathered hair, and Badertscher’s appended caption—It wasn’t just cash that they were looking for—hints at something beyond the merely transactional and basely physical.

In an insightful 1999 essay, Tyler Curtain wrote that such a photograph takes “the feel, the excitement, of a trick and transfers it to the surface of the photo.” Perhaps. But his photos are also cool, calculating images. His models slouch provocatively, cock their heads precisely, and judiciously angle their arms, confidently using their bodies as communicative tools. Abrupt contrasts between smooth skin, taut leather, and hard metal heighten our sense of a tactile physicality. Often shot in late morning light in Badertscher’s home, these are studio shots that often feel less like “a trick” and more like a careful arrangement, or the outcome of a deliberate conversation.

And in that sense, Badertscher was arguably doing something novel, or even unique. There were, admittedly, better-known photographers who were covering roughly similar thematic ground at around the same time. Peter Hujar (who photographed John Waters and Divine in 1975) was also committed to an unvarnished portrayal of queer individuals. Robert Mapplethorpe also alluded to classical precedents in rendering nudes in black and white. And Larry Clark also conveyed intensity and smoldering heat in his photographs. But Clark’s work was often gritty and documentary, while Mapplethorpe’s embodied a rigidly austere formalism, and Hujar’s resisted any sign of artifice at all. (Bette Bourne, on being shot by Hujar: “No posing. No putting anything on. No camping around. Just flat, real who-you-are.”)

 

Amos Badertscher, A Gay Tattoo Skin Donor, 1994, Courtesy of the Artist, © Amos Badertscher
Amos Badertscher, West$Side Billy #1, 2001, Courtesy of the Artist, © Amos Badertscher

Badertscher, by contrast, was always instinctively open to the notion of queer performativity that would eventually be popularized by the theorist Judith Butler—and to the related concepts of contingency and creativity. Certainly, his preferred materials (Nikon camera; black-and-white film; silver gelatin prints) were conventional, and his images frequently conveyed (as Joseph Henry has noted) a tonal coldness. But his models’ obviously intentional poses and his frequent use of mirrors and reflected images point to the theme of appearance, troubling any distinction between the natural and the theatrical, and recalling Annamarie Jagose’s notion of queerness as a “zone of possibilities.”

This is especially true of a number of the photographs taken in bars and nightclubs, which picture a vibrant band of fabulous subjects (and some of the few persons of color in this very white show). In A Gay Tattoo Skin Donor, for instance, a heavily made up dominatrix appraises us fiercely, a cigarette clamped between bright, bared teeth and a solid oval of lipstick. The text in the picture’s margin offers an evocative biographical sketch of its subject. Rick, we read, worked at the zoo; in the Hippo, however, “he was ‘Mistress Q, always kind and visually, his bark was worse than his bite.” The photograph thus begins to deconstruct itself, implying that a visible exterior is only a fraction of a more involved picture.

Such a sentiment loosely recalls the photographer Duane Michals’ claim that “the best part of us is not what we see.” Indeed, Badertscher was consistently attentive to the fact that his subjects, however charismatic or apparently confident, often lived difficult and even dangerous lives. In the text accompanying a sensitive 1976 photograph of Laurence Doane, for instance, Badertscher wrote, simply, “the bruise must be on the other arm”—evoking, in other words, an unseen violence. And in Wobbly, from 1997, a local lawyer elegantly costumed in leather and splayed akimbo on a draped pair of chairs wears a mask in order to preserve his anonymity. No matter how composed his subjects may seem, they were also fragile, and familiar with inhumane levels of opprobrium and violence.

 

Amos Badertscher, Dennis and the Ladder, 2001, Courtesy of the Artist, © Amos Badertscher
Amos Badertscher, A Little More Keith Haring, Less Jasper, ca. 2001, Courtesy of the Artist, © Amos Badertscher
Badertscher was a connoisseur of the ways in which bodies can be used to occupy a position.
Kerr Houston

Another way of saying this is that Badertscher’s photographs are unusually interested in physicality. That’s true of the photographs themselves, which are not only images but also grounds for Badertscher’s handwritten meditations. But it’s true as well of the way in which his subjects are depicted. Their hands touch their own flesh in suggestive ways; arms wrap protectively around bent legs or extend cheekily into space; feet repeatedly feel planted in a declarative way. Badertscher was a connoisseur of the ways in which bodies can be used to occupy a position.

Importantly, though, his interest in physicality took shape in a context that was shot through with power imbalances. Badertscher, who received a considerable inheritance in 1973, often found his young subjects in the meat racks of Mount Vernon and Patterson Park, paying them to pose for him. Saunders’ wall texts do acknowledge, at several points, the ethical nebulousness that arose as an older, relatively wealthy gay man paid marginalized queer youths to shoot them in various states of undress. But how should we feel, exactly, when Badertscher reports that one of his models told him that, “If you help me then I’ll repay you in bed”? It is a baldly commercial logic that reduces a young man to little more than a body. And so the resulting photograph of him, nude, threatens to collapse into the realm of the exploitative.

Badertscher was apparently alert to the moral issues raised by his practice, and he frequently included himself in his images. Take, for instance, Corey Reflection #1, shot in 1996 and exhibited as an inkjet print in this show. Three mirrors lean against the walls of a spare room; a wedge of sunlight falls on the wood floor. Each mirror, in turn, offers an angled reflection of a stockinged young nude, seen from the rear. Leaning forward, the beautifully proportioned but anonymous figure recalls the athleticism of the half-dressed soldiers in Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina and the icy fetishism of the fragmented figures in a famous shot by Helmut Newton.

But then we notice, with a slight shock, an interloper: in the furthest mirror, there’s a partial reflection of an older man, wearing nothing but work boots. Is this figure, partially present but also flirtatiously distant, the photographer responsible for the image? Is he a mere voyeur, enjoying the visual parade of grace on display—and reminding us, too, of our own role as visual consumer? Is he a descendant of Picasso’s famous johns, judging the appealing flesh before him? Or are we looking at a second, more reluctant model, shy on account of the years that separate him from the flawless contours of his peer?

 

Installation view of Lost Boys: Amos Badertscher’s Baltimore, Photo by Kerr Houston
The images in Lost Boys can feel haunting, due to the deaths of both author and subjects. But in the end, this is a show that generates considerable power from the process of making present.
Kerr Houston

There is no simple answer here—for, in a sense, Badertscher was all of these things, at once. His legacy, therefore, is a complicated one. But it’s also one that deserves to be seen, due to his clear pictorial intelligence and for his abiding empathy for frequently overlooked subjects. The images in Lost Boys can feel haunting, due to the deaths of both author and subjects. But in the end, this is a show that generates considerable power from the process of making present.

Indeed, near the center of one of the galleries stand the chair and the marble pedestal that Badertscher often used as studio props. Their presence, too, is surprisingly moving. Sure, the past may be passed, and life is evidently fragile. But the simple fact of the chair in the room is a jarring reminder that these photographs are surviving traces of robust and fully lived lives. And so this show, just like the photos in it, finally points to the considerable beauty and meaning that can stem from persisting in a largely uncaring world.

 

Amos Badertscher, A 70’s Fairy Tale, 1979, Courtesy of the Artist, © Amos Badertscher
Amos Badertscher, Stoney, 1982, Courtesy of the Artist, © Amos Badertscher

Public Programming: LGBTQ+ Oral Histories: Ethics and Practice

Panel Discussion
September 28, 2023, 5pm
Reception to follow

Featuring Dr. Kate Drabinski (UMBC), Dr. Joseph Plaster (Johns Hopkins University), Hunter O’Hanian (Independent scholar and curator), and students of the 2023 Interdisciplinary CoLab, “LGBTQ+ Oral History Project.” This event is Co-sponsored by the Department of Gender, Women’s, + Sexuality Studies, UMBC.

Header Image: Amos Badertscher, Voice Wafers in Time #1, 1975. Courtesy of the Artist. © Amos Badertscher

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