Amos Badertscher

Photography by Amos Badertscher

Born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1936, Amos Badertscher is a self-taught American photographer whose body of work includes portraits, still lifes, and landscapes. He is best known for his gelatin silver prints of Baltimore’s hustler and subculture scenes from the 1970s to the 1990s.

In the middle of the 1970s, Badertscher, financed by a family inheritance, began to capture on film Baltimore’s downtrodden youth, often homeless or drug addicted, and many of them sex-workers between jail terms. On many of the portraits, there is copious shaky and uneven handwriting which sometimes filled all the available negative space around the image.These texts written by Badertscher revealed the lives of his subjects and his understanding of them. The writings outlined the painful childhoods, addictions, prostitution, disease and other realities that affected the lives of his subjects. In the texts, Badertscher also described fluidity in the sexual identity of the hustlers and their attempts at creating even fleeting stability in their lives.

Each of Amos Badertscher’s images is shot without reliance on intricate technique; instead the focus is placed on the intimate, personal nature of the portrait. His preferred photographic technique is rapid, unrehearsed sessions which are not planned or visualized in advance. Badertscher relies on his instinct and what he considers his many possibilities in the darkroom.

Badertscher’s work was ignored for almost twenty years. By 1993, he was resigned to putting his house up for sale. By chance, the real-estate agent brought Michael Mezzatesta. the director of the Duke University Museum of Art, and his wife to tour the house whose many rooms were covered with Badertscher’s photographs. Although the couple did not purchase the house, Badertscher was later given a solo exhibition at the Duke University Museum of Art in 1995. 

Amos Badertscher’s best known photographic collection is “Baltimore Portraits” which was published in association with the Duke University Museum of Art’s exhibition of Badertscher’s work. The volume contains eighty black and white portraits accompanied with hand-written narratives about their subjects. “Baltimore Portraits”, which span a twenty-year period from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, documented a sector of Baltimore life that had been largely unnoticed and virtually decimated by societal neglect, AIDS, and substance abuse. Badertscher’s collection presented arresting and melancholy photographs of bar and street people, strippers, drug addicts, transvestites, drag queens and hustlers. 

Badertscher has shown his photography in many group exhibitions, including most recently “The 1970’s: The Blossoming of Queer Enlightenment” at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art in 2016, the 2019 “About Face: Stonewall, Revolt and New Queer Art” at Wrightwood 659 in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, and the 2021 “Clandestine: The Photo Collection of Pedro Slim” at the Cobra Museum voor Moderne Kunst in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Badertscher’s photographs, along with works by Diane Arbus, Man Ray, Bill Brandt and others, were also  included in Mexico City’s  “La Parte Más Bella”exhibition at the Museo de Arte Moderno which ran from October 2017 to March 2018.  

In 2005, the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art gave a retrospective of Amos Badertscher’s photographs entitled “Illegal to See–The Outsider Art of Amos Badertscher”. This exhibit was originally mounted as part of the Center for Exploratory and Perceptual Art’s “Deviant Bodies”, a major exhibition that explored the margins of contemporary gay male culture. Badertscher’s show consisted of fifty-seven gelatin silver prints from his thirty plus years of work. From March to July in 2020, a solo exhibition of Badertscher’s photographs, “Amos Badertscher: The Souls Around Us” was held at the Schwules Museum in Berlin; this retrospective was his first comprehensive museum exhibition outside of the United States.

In 1998, a collection of Amos Badertscher’s photography, entitled “Badertscher”, was published by St. Martin’s Press. His work was also included in David Arden Sprigle’s 1998 “Male Bonding: Volume Two”, an anthology collection of sixty-three photographers. Badertscher’s photographs can be found in the New York Public Library’s Photography Collection and the Harry H. Weintraub Collection of Gay-Related Photography and Historical Documentation (1850-2010) at the Cornell University Library, as well as many other public and private collections.

Note: For those interested, Amos Badertscher’s “Baltimore Portraits” is availabel through the Duke University Press located at: https://www.dukeupress.edu/baltimore-portraits

Top Insert Image: Amos Badertscher, “Portrait of Marty”, 1999, Gelatin Silver Print, 34.9 x 27.6 cm, Private Collection

Third Insert Image: Amos Badertscher, “Constantine P. Cavafy Poem”, 1975, Gelatin Silver Print, Leslie-Lohman  Museum of Art

Bottom Insert Image: Amos Badertscher, Title Unknown (Portrait with Mirror), 1996, Gelatin Silver Print, Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art

2 thoughts on “Amos Badertscher

  1. What an enlightening story about an artist I had ner heard of. As I live in Baltimore it is especially poignant to me. I will look for his book.

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