Amos Badertscher, Who Documented a Sexual Underground, Dies at 86

Amos Badertscher, a self-taught photographer whose stark, powerful and sometimes erotic images of hustlers, prostitutes and drag queens in Baltimore reflected his empathy for people living on the fringes of the city, died on July 24 in Baltimore. He was 86.

Mr. Badertscher’s death, at a rehabilitation facility, came after he broke his arm in a fall in his backyard, said Bill Badertscher, his adopted son, former companion and only immediate survivor.

Before his fall, Mr. Baderstcher (pronounced bah-DER-cher) had been expected to attend a retrospective of about 200 of his photos at the Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, which is to open on Aug. 30.

“He lived on the first floor of a rowhouse, completely surrounded by his photographs,” Beth Saunders, who curated the University of Maryland show, said in a phone interview. “You’d walk with him and stop as he pointed out a photograph, and he’d tell you stories about it. He’d move them around so every time I went there, they’d be in different places.”

Another show, at the Clamp gallery in Manhattan, is to open in September.

“He was documenting the underground culture of Baltimore, more specifically, the L.G.B.T.Q. culture, which was regarded by most as seedy and unsavory,” said Brian Paul Clamp, the gallery’s owner. “But he was genuinely interested in these people. He had a real personal connection with these people. His life was entwined with theirs.”

Mr. Badertscher, who was gay, found his models on the streets, in clubs and in gay bars. He was most intrigued by the young men who often posed nude in his studio for him.

“There must have been something dangerously lacking in my upper-middle class psyche because I did not find nudity, even youthful male nudity, shocking, abusive, emasculating, pornographic or subversive,” Mr. Badertscher said in the catalog for his one-man show at the Duke University Museum of Art in 1995. “To photograph the naked body is for me the ultimate dimension in photographing the person.”

In his review of a group show at Maryland Art Place in Baltimore, Glenn McNatt, art critic for The Baltimore Sun, compared Mr. Badertscher’s “unapologetically homoerotic nudes” to those of Robert Mapplethrope.

Mr. Badertscher’s Duke show came about in an unusual way. He had put his house up for sale, and one prospective buyer was Michael Mezzatesta, the director of the Duke museum. During his tour of the house, he saw Mr. Badertscher’s photographs on every wall and was impressed. He ultimately decided against buying the home but offered Mr. Badertscher the exhibition.

“Amos Badertscher has humanized people we might never encounter or think about,” Mr. Mezzatesta wrote in the foreword to “Baltimore Portraits” (1999), a monograph that grew out of the show, “conveying not only the tragedy of lives lost but also the indomitable drive of the spirit to make itself known.”

Amos Edison Badertscher Jr. was born on Oct. 1, 1936, in Towson, Md. His father was a horticulturist and entomologist for the McCormick spice company. His mother, Grace (Eames) Badertscher, was a homemaker.

After serving in the Army Reserves in the mid-1950s, he graduated from Union College, in Schenectady, N.Y., where he received a bachelor’s degree in English literature and history in 1959. Mr. Bardetscher taught math in a private school in Baltimore, then English at a public school, also in Baltimore, for about seven years during the 1960s.

By the mid-1960s, he was taking pictures, first with a Polaroid, then with an Argus C-3 that had been his mother’s wedding gift to his father in 1935. Gradually, he turned his focus to photographing the male figure, and later used Nikon and Leica cameras.

“The rest of the world was put on hold,” he wrote in the Duke catalog.

An inheritance he received after his father’s death in 1973 allowed him to focus full-time on photography, although he also worked part-time as a driving instructor as late as 1985.

Bill Bardetscher said in a phone interview that Amos Bardetscher’s encounters with the many people he photographed began when he picked them up as hitchhikers.

“He’d hire them to do odd jobs, like landscaping and yard work, and he would ask if he could photograph them,” Bill Bardetscher said. His subjects included hustlers, cross-dressers and drag queens. “A lot of these people were homeless and had been thrown out of their homes because they were gay.”

He added, “He sought them out to document the tragedy of their circumstances.”

Mr. Badertscher wrote notes along the margins of his silver gelatin prints that gave details of his subjects’ often-tragic lives. The marginalia were derived from his memory and from the oral history interviews he recorded and wrote with many of the models, which gave him the raw material to inscribe different notes around the edges of different prints of the same picture.

In one photo, a nude model, Steve Garrett, sits on the lap of Mr. Badertscher, who also appears to be naked.

“The most intelligent & creative boy on the streets of the West Side of Baltimore,” Mr. Badertscher wrote. “Both he and his brother John learned early on that it paid more to be nicer to ‘fruits’ than to rob them.”

In a 2019 group show in Chicago, “About Face: Stonewall, Revolt and New Queer Art,” the critic Arthur Lubow took note of Mr. Badertscher’s presence in some of his work. “Adding tension to his photographs,” he wrote, “is the problematic power dynamic in these transactions: Mr. Badertscher often includes his own figure, reflected in a mirror as he photographs his hard-pressed subjects.”

Thousands of Mr. Badertscher’s prints are in the collections of institutions dedicated to L.G.B.T.Q. art and materials, including the Leslie-Loman Museum of Art in Manhattan and the ONE Archives at the U.S.C. Libraries in Los Angeles.

Hunter O’Hanian, who with Jonathan David Katz curated a solo show of Mr. Badertscher’s images in 2020 at the Schwules Museum in Berlin, said that Mr. Badertscher found himself in the world he came to document.

“Here was a man who was sort of struggling to come out in the 1960s,” he said by phone. “The way that he found a connection in other same-sex relationships was by availing himself of the hustler crowd on the streets of Baltimore where he lived.”

Short histories of many of the hustlers — and other people Mr. Badertscher photographed — will be included on the labels beside each picture at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, show.

One of them, identified as “Kenny Legs,” began hustling in the 1960s.

“One of the best of the truly bad girls in a city packed full of lost angels and Baltimore was heaven,” Mr. Badertscher wrote. “If this city had existed around 1300 and had been in Florence it would have so easily found a very appropriate place in ‘The Inferno.’ Kenny died of AIDS about 1998.”

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