Remembering David Armstrong

The cult photographer David Armstrong, who died at his home in Los Angeles on Saturday night after a long battle with liver cancer, had a few near misses in the sixty years he spent on earth.

His boyfriend died of AIDS in 1983. The following year, he returned to his native Boston to try to kick a heroin habit that was fast becoming a problem. “You’d see someone one day, and they were dead the next. I shut down,” he reportedly said of the time. He stayed clean for 17 years, but tacitly commented, throughout his life, that one never quite gets clean. He started using again in 2002. “Am I a functioning addict?” he said in an interview with The New York Times. “I’m functioning enough.”

But maybe that allowed Armstrong to capture, with such an authenticity of experience, the marginal characters, the dissolute youngsters, the anything-but-a-normal-lifers. Armstrong almost exclusively photographed young men. But there was something different, distinct, about the way he captured another’s masculinity through a lens; naturally lit, but smooth-edged, almost-staged. Sexual, even voyeuristic, but remote and plaintive too.

“It has to do with issues of my own,” Armstrong told The Times. “This thing about male youth, this idea that something is fading. I get older and still take pictures of boys that are the age I was when I was first shooting them.”

That’s not to say Armstrong was always as upfront, or as sincere, about the intersection between his own age, his own life, and his aesthetic compulsions.

“I always think you want to come away with some beautiful, beautiful picture of the person, the boy, that’s really everything you want to express about them,” he told his friend Jack Pierson in an interview for Out magazine. “Or, at least something you can rub one out to.”

Such self-depreciation may have come from an unstable career, much of which was – from the press’ perspective at least – kept in the shadow of his more celebrated collaborator Nan Goldin.

Armstrong was born in Arlington, Massachusetts, in 1954. He met Goldin when he was 14 and she was just a little older; she was “legendary,” he once said, even at that age. She’d been kicked out of school the year before, but that didn’t stop her from joining Armstrong, along with photographers Jack Pierson, Philip-Lorca di Corcia and Mark Morrisroe at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts.

Together, taking their cameras to the downtown hang-outs, the squats, the dens of Boston and New York, they became known as The Boston School. Their work was shown together at PS1’s New York/New Wave exhibition in 1981. The name captured the zeitgeist, and they were indeed talked of as a new wave of youth culture reportage.

“He has a specific style and owns it,” the photographer Ryan McGinley wrote in an afterword of Redfern’s revered book 615 Jefferson Avenue. “It’s almost like Vermeer, using only sunlight to illuminate uni-directionally. His photographs are about desire and despair. These are qualities he looks for in the boys’ eyes.”

He looked set, ready for the big time. But his addictions got in the way, and he traded New York for a go at calming down and getting straight in Boston. He wouldn’t make much of a mark, photographically, for another 13 years. But then Goldin convinced him on a move to Berlin, and then worked, together again, on The Double Life, a mediation on the 20 years they’d known each other, the people they’d met, the times they’d shared; hers in lavish colour, his in ruminative monochrome.

It sparked a comeback in the public eye. He moved back to New York and started to teach at the International Center of Photography. Then Hedi Slimane, seeing his eye for the spirit of youth, brought him into the fashion world for a series of backstage photos for a Dior Homme launch in the early 2000s.

The exposure led to commissions with Dazed and Confused and Another Man as well as campaign work for Burberry, Alexander Wang and Bottega Veneta.

He died at the age of 60, in the city of old glamour. He will be sadly missed; a brilliant, intuitive photographer who gave so much, and had so much more to give.

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Tom Seymour

Tom Seymour is an Associate Editor at The Art Newspaper and an Associate Lecturer at London College of Communication. His words have been published in The Guardian, The Observer, The New York Times, Financial Times, Wallpaper* and The Telegraph. He has won Writer of the Year and Specialist Writer of the year on three separate occassions at the PPA Awards for his work with The Royal Photographic Society.