NEW YORK, United States — Possessed of a sophisticated style and remarkable charisma, David Armstrong, who passed away yesterday, was both a highly influential artist and a muse to his fellow photographers.
Before his career had even begun, Armstrong was the subject of a famous photograph taken by his good friend Nan Goldin. Together with Goldin and Jack Pierson, with whom he remained lifelong friends, Armstrong attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in the late 1970s. There, the trio pioneered a genre of personal documentary photography, both gritty and glamorous, that, years later, would influence the work of Wolfgang Tillmans and Ryan McGinley.
Armstrong’s images have a calm, contemplative romance that gives them an ethereal, timeless quality. His portraiture of young men — shot with natural light and generally in black and white — constitutes the centre of his oeuvre. His early portraits documenting downtown New York’s gay community in the late 1970s and early 1980s almost immediately developed a nostalgic romance as artifacts of a pre-AIDS era.
“A lot of people just use models as mannequins, so it doesn’t matter who they are,” he told me, back in 2010, during an interview for The New York Times’ T Magazine. “But I don’t…. Increasingly, as I get older, I’ve found that taking a photo is a sublimated sexual experience. It always has been this act of seduction, where you are trying to get the subjects to reveal themselves before the camera.”
For Armstrong, recognition came early. In 1981, he was included in the seminal “New York/New Wave” exhibition at contemporary art museum PS1; later, his work appeared in the 1995 Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art. But the intervening years were personally difficult for Armstrong and the photographer left New York for an extended period, overwhelmed physically and emotionally by the life he had led here.
By the time of his return to the city, in the late 1990s, Armstrong’s work had begun to expand beyond his crisply classical portraiture into luminously blurred landscapes that evoked early experiments in photography. As was the case with his black and white portraits, Armstrong was exploring the physical properties of film. Indeed, many of his strongest images have a subtle simplicity, reflecting his deep understanding of the history of photography, which they don’t so much challenge as actively participate in.
Armstrong’s first fashion assignments were for Hedi Slimane, who invited the photographer to shoot backstage at his shows for Dior Homme. Armstrong later worked for Burberry and Bottega Veneta, while shooting portraits and editorials for fashion magazines like AnOther Man, Self Service, Acne Paper, Pop, 10 Magazine and Love. “Along with Bruce Weber and Jack Pierson, I think he was one of the great photographers of men," says critic, curator and author Vince Aletti. "I loved that he worked so regularly in fashion because he always had an understanding, personal touch, like he was taking pictures of his lovers — or best friends.”
But Armstrong always regarded the fashion industry with a degree of scepticism. When I asked him about fashion’s influence on his own work, he replied, “Whether or not it’s positive, [it] teaches you to approach photography like it’s a trade. There’s a mission to be accomplished and that’s what you set out to do. That’s the opposite of how you approach it for art, where you take the photograph and then have quite a long time to think about it.”
Commercial success allowed Armstrong to buy a townhouse in Brooklyn in the late 1990s. (He also began to use drugs again and, in person, was both powerfully present and worrisomely gaunt.) Unlike many of his contemporaries, he remained accessible, though preferred that you came to him. A pilgrimage to Armstrong’s rambling, artfully cluttered and possibly haunted home was something of a right of passage. The launch party for his book 615 Jefferson Ave was decorated to look like Armstrong’s home.
Fortuitously, in what would be his last decade, Armstrong was able to publish several monographs of his work. Aron Mörel, who published the last book of Armstrong’s work, Night & Day, recalls, “I've never worked with anyone so easy going, so cool, so cultured, so humble. His house was a cabinet of curiosities, full of stories and memories. So was he. [He] was full of a thousand stories I'll still never know about, from a bygone era and golden age of New York City.”
Armstrong was an art photographer who influenced fashion imagery. But perhaps the most evocative image he created was his own.
Ken Miller is an editor, curator and the author of "SHOOT: Photography of the Moment." He has curated photography exhibitions around the world.
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