Remembering David Armstrong

In an intimate impromptu film, Ryan McGinley and Jack Pierson visit their friend and fellow artist and photographer David Armstrong at his rustic retreat in Bovina, New York State. Born in Massachusetts and renowned internationally for his contributions to art and fashion photography—his compelling portraits of young men in particular have influenced a generation of image makers—Armstrong passed away on this this days a 6 years ago at the age of 60, after battling liver cancer.

McGinley remembers:

It’s been exactly a year since David Armstrong’s shutter clicked for the last time and he went to photo heaven.This film was shot in 2008 when Jack Pierson and I spent the weekend at David’s house in Upstate New York. The three of us interviewed and photographed each other for a story in Fanzine 137 magazine. A few years after we shot this video David’s house burned down. He was so happy because the house was falling apart anyway and he got a lot of insurance money for it.

He once said to me, “Doing a portrait is a very private thing. It’s something you set up and do alone with somebody and actually consider it. You have to love your subject when it’s going on.” David taught me that you have to look at a picture and think: could anyone else have taken this aside from me? If someone else could have, it’s no good, just get rid of it. He said that every photo needs to be judged on the amount of life it contains.
In this film he has me dressed in a pink tutu, pink stockings and a long pink scarf, and has me running around in the freezing cold in pointy high heels. It wasn’t my favorite look but I’d do almost anything for him. He’d say, “C’mon cupcakes, let the old broad have some fun.” David only ever called me “cupcakes” or “doll face.”
I’d study him during our shoots; he photographed me a lot. I’d watch him lying on the floor or in a dusty corner, cocking his head to one side. He’d always shoot me with his sunglasses on and then complain about how the exposure was too dark.

David knew the history of photography inside and out. He always said he loathed when photographers didn’t know the history since photography was only 150 years old.

David called his brownstone in Bed-Stuy “The House for Wayward Boys.” It had four floors and probably ten bedrooms in it. Whenever a friend of mine needed a room to rent I’d call David up. He’d first say, “Is he cute, doll?” Then he’d ask, “Do you think he’ll dust the house?” He loved having beautiful young guys around, it made him happy. He called them flowers. They were like David’s kids. They took care of him as much as he took care of them. I had a lot of friends and boyfriends over the years who worked for him or lived with him. One of them, Matt, always let me know me when Nan Goldin would leave long messages on the answering machine.

I had my own names for David’s house: “The Cabinet of Curiosities” or, “The Palace of Dim Light.” Walking through each room you’d find old saris draped over lampshades, silk damasks flung over chairs, doll heads in glass vitrines, racks of vintage clothes in every room and on mannequins. David would write everything off because he used it all in his photos. He eventually got audited in 2012 and when the IRS man came to the house, he was shocked. He’d never seen anything like it, realized David wasn’t lying, and let him off.

When we drove around, David would always rent a 15-passenger van for only three people. He would sit in the very back and smoke menthol cigarettes and stare out the window. There were two or three rows of seats empty: he thought it was so glamorous.

David used words like “adore” and “vile” all the time. I’d wake up some mornings and he’d have texted me lines from Grey Gardens in the middle of the night: “Mother wanted me to come down in a kimono, so of course we had quite a fight.” When I get sad, I think of David blurting out a Broadway line: “No tears, no fuss—Hooray for us!” Recently I was looking at his old Facebook posts and found this quote he put up by Sylvia Plath: “Dying is an art, like everything else, I do it very well.”

October 26, 2015

This article was published first time in Nowness


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