Critics’ Picks

Amost Badertscher, Portrait with Two Brothers—Ross + Eddie Front View, 1996–98, silver gelatin print, 4 1/2 x 7 3/4".

Amost Badertscher, Portrait with Two Brothers—Ross + Eddie Front View, 1996–98, silver gelatin print, 4 1/2 x 7 3/4".

Berlin

Amos Badertscher

Schwules Museum
Lützowstraße 73
March 6–July 27, 2020

One of the sections in this retrospective of work by the Baltimore-based photographer Amos Badertscher is called “Lost Boy,” named for a character that serves as a veritable emblem for the show. Portraits of these gamins—usually white, usually thin—proliferate throughout. Most are supplemented by Badertscher’s handwritten captions, which visually enframe the photographs (all gelatin silver prints) and in essence explain how the artist and his boys came to meet. The exhibition, boldly but sensitively curated by Jonathan D. Katz and Hunter O’Hanian, is up-front about its thorny ethics: In the mid-1970s, with the financial buffer of a family inheritance, Badertscher (born in 1936) began capturing Baltimore’s down-and-out youth, usually sex workers transiting across various states of incarceration, homelessness, and drug addiction. In narration both memorializing and strangely disaffected, Badertscher writes out their backstories and fates. Marty, one common collaborator, “has certainly given up on existence,” while Bob, an earlier model, “was hardly programmed to survive.” There is little mention of romance, or even sexual preference, in these accounts; rather, these are pictures governed by the logic of transaction, as explicitly laid out in a 1979 letter from one former subject in prison to Badertscher, pleading, “if you help me then I’ll repay you in Bed . . .”

It’s the tonal coldness of these images, coupled with their outward eroticism, that distinguishes his practice from much of contemporary queer portrait photography, which has tended to be more invested in defiant heroism or lyrical sensuousness. Badertscher’s pictures, ranging in the show from the 1970s to the early 2000s, even prefigure the self-reflexive use of the mirror, a device now central to the glossier work of figures like Paul Mpagi Sepuya and Matthew Morrocco. In Portrait with Two Brothers—Ross + Eddie Front View, 1996–98, Badertscher adopts a scenario more endogenous to porn—a daddy and two sibling twinks dressed only in tube socks and sneakers—then splinters it by shooting three mirrors against a wall. Each glass surface splits the image of the posing boys and in only one instance captures Badertscher, with camera on knee. Two Brothers is a portrait without interiority and without the full offerings of haptic pleasure; instead, in the boys’ bodily reference to classical sculpture, the sexual encounter obeys preestablished scripts and configurations of power.