DEVIANT BODIES June 25 – August 21, 2004
Amos Badertscher

Amos Badertscher presents work from his ongoing series Baltimore Portraits.  Many of the works displayed were published in Amos Badertscher: Baltimore Portraits an oversized book from Duke University Press (1999) that grew out of an exhibition of his work in 1995. 


Essay by Mack Friedman
for CEPA (Center for Exploratory and Perceptual Art)
June 2004

When I look at Amos Badertscher's work, I feel like I’m hustling again. To me it’s like his camera’s an occult mirror reflecting the light from his subjects’ skin into the darker corners of my past. The desperation in their eyes is two shades too familiar. The embarrassment of their smiles, my own. Freshly gained manhood sticks proudly out of their zippers, a memory. The complacent tilt of their hips is all mine. In his portraits, Amos possesses the historically dispossessed. In doing so, and in doing so simply, he makes street hustlers starkly real, neither heroes nor martyrs. He flashes on society’s margins, illuminates what we neglect to examine, and reminds us what it’s like to be young and lost. He shows us our objects of desire, first, and then our shame, and he makes us own them both.

There is a long tradition of hustlers playing muse to gay artists. Caravaggio picked up street urchins to become his paid models and catamites in the 16th century. In 20th century America, hustlers served as muses for Paul Cadmus, William Burroughs, and Christopher Isherwood, to name only a few. And what is a hustler if not someone’s rented muse? Men and women hire hustlers to admire, to desire, to become revitalized, to feel young again: to be rejuvenated. Erotic nude photographs are proxies of this desire: they offer us a way to appreciate others’ bodies while controlling our own.

Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden, who moved from Germany to Taormina, Sicily, in the late 1800s, pioneered this contained voyeurism in silver and sepia. His postcards of local farm boys, veiled as innovative commercial art, were some of the first successful mass-productions of photographic nudes. Roland Barthes offered that von Gloeden’s models, nubile and rough-hewn, were complaisants, expressly open and eager to comply with viewers’ fantasies.

With makeshift staffs and dusty urns, von Gloeden propped his models against the homoeroticism of the Hellenistic idyll, the celebratory vase work of erastes and eromenos, lover and beloved. Hidden in his subjects’ faces you can sometimes find an acceptance of such flattery, a self-conscious self-appraisal, as a boy gazes down his own body. Most of von Gloeden’s portraits were destroyed by Mussolini’s fascists, but in a few collections one can find a hardcore print or two: an unnoticed erection, for example, or two boys, supine amid crumbling ruins, trembling towards a happy 69. Von Gloeden intimates a sexual economy that he himself, a wealthy expatriate, created (materials have survived indicating that Oscar Wilde was the most famous patron of this disguised brothel); but his more direct documentation did not survive the sex police.

Would the Baron's work survive today’s America, where virtually all photos of adolescents in birthday suits have been fanatically destroyed? In the last 30 years, our government has censored the work of such artists as Jock Sturges, Larry Clark, and Will McBride. Legislation has been passed that criminalizes the nude photography of anyone who simply looks under the age of 18, in the subjective assessment of our agents for justice. In a testament to bravery, in search for truth, and in solidarity against censorship, the Center for Exploratory and Perceptual Art has put Amos Badertscher’s work on display. You will be arrested upon entrance…by the justice of his work.

Amos Badertscher wants to understand, and to express what he’s learned from 44 years of meeting lost boys on the streets. He is a participant-observer in the vein of Thomas Painter, a gay man and occasional sex client who, at Alfred Kinsey’s direction, took thousands of photographs of Times Square hustlers in the World War II era. But Badertscher, who started photographing the street world in the late 1960s, did not have the luxury of a legendary sexologist to encourage and question his compelling artistry. Even as the hustler demimonde inspired the Boston School photographers Mark Morrisroe, David Armstrong, and Nan Goldin in the early 1970s, our untrained observer toiled alone in his Baltimore darkroom. Without Morrisroe’s scarred self-reflexivity, Armstrong’s careful detachment, or Goldin’s bilious after-party palette, Badertscher’s hustler portraits are at once immediate and nostalgic, impassioned and exploitive.

This body of work illuminates our hard-wired fantasies and then strips away their comfortable insulation to the raw current of what’s real, what’s missed at a glance, what we protect ourselves from. Badertscher’s .28mm lens elongates limbs, stretching the arms and legs of his pubescent junkies. When indoors, his props are distinctly contemporary: no diaphanous robes or dianthus sprigs here. Instead, tall black leather boots and sinuous riding crops, clinical stools and sterile backdrops. Outside, his soft-focus images of young men injecting in a dappled thicket evokes F. Holland Day’s fin-de-siecle martyrs, speared Saint Sebastiens in the blur of self-destruction. Below the bridge, boys tear their clothes off, share needles with blowjobs, kiss their sisters and girlfriends. It’s right there in black and white, in broad daylight. No need to crane your neck. It’s a short drop, this parallel, rarified world just under the tracks.

A rich, subversive preservation of Baltimore’s storied sex work traditions, this work is a chronicle of both social lore and individual history. The lives of my friends and the street kids I’ve worked with are in the epitaphs, epithets, and epigrams Badertscher scrawls around the frames of those unfamiliar boys with familiar expressions. Absent fathers, abusive brothers, crackhead moms. Cop and shoot and fuck and charge and run at 12 years old. They never had a chance, or this was it. Never sentimental, with terse and brutal subtlety, Badertscher mines the subterrain and shines his flashlight on its shadows. He turns his camera to the shade of underpass and shows us what’s happening right under our noses, forces us to examine what we might ordinarily ignore, condemn, legislate against, and even make illegal to see. Because when you see these images, you’ll know something has gone wrong. Somebody got stuck with the short end of the stick. Somebody got shit on, and didn’t even pay for it.

And still, all this granted, all my dead friends - all the beating and stabbing and raping remembered - these photographs are replaying the time of my life, over and over. Amos Badertscher’s portraits transport me into some trick’s apartment. Slowly shimmying out of my jeans, I’d stare into the mirror like these subjects eye the lens, warily scanning the glass to read my own face. I’d find a perfect combination of lust and fear, curiosity and revulsion, hunger and nausea: that’s how being gay had always felt. The emotions weren’t new, just more intense. I’d canvas my flesh to see what the john saw in my body, blink a few times, as if he were taking pictures, say under my breath:

I show myself to you. This is who I am. Ask your questions. I dare you. Look me in the eye. Turn the camera on me.

--Mack Friedman,
author of Strapped for Cash: A History of American Hustler Culture,
Lambda Literary Award Finalist
(Alyson Publications, 2003)

illegal to see the outsider art of amos badertscher

install, amos badertscher
Installation in CEPA's Underground Gallery

Amos Badertscher
Installation in CEPA'a Underground Gallery

Amos Badertscher
Installation in CEPA's Underground Gallery

Amos Badertscher
Installation in CEPA's Underground Gallery

Amos Badertscher
Installation in CEPA's Underground Gallery