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Remembering David Armstrong Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

1 November 2014

The lighting was always sunlight, never a strobe. The subject untidy youth, the sunlight caught sharply in their eyes. A fashion shoot becomes a portrait. And, in contrast, the signage and street lights of the city as subject but shot out of focus as painterly splashes of undefined color.

These were the two worlds of David Armstrong, who passed away from liver cancer at 60 in Los Angeles last Sunday "with a big smile on his face surrounded by his friends," according to Vogue West Coast Editor Lisa Love.

"Our friendship was long and it was a love story and a marriage of sorts," Love told Time. "He made me smarter and I sometimes made him tidier."

Armstrong was born in Arlington, Mass. in 1954. He attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and Cooper Union from 1974 to 1978 and earned a BFA from Tufts University in 1988.

When he was just 14, he began a life-long friendship with the slightly older Nan Goldin, legendary among the cool kids for being kicked out of school. It would change his life.

'He was an artist and humanist, arresting unutterably intimate moments with light.'

At the School of the Museum of Fine Arts he and Goldin met photographers Jack Pierson, Philip-Lorca di Corcia and Mark Morrisroe. He had gone there to study painting but, under Goldin's influence, switched to photography.

The group of young photographers scoured the seedier side of Boston and New York, shooting a documentary-style photography of youth culture that came to be known as the Boston School. They held a joint show in 1981.

"This thing about male youth," Armstrong explained the attraction later in an interview with the N.Y. Times, "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."

But his career stalled early until he went to Berlin to work with Goldin on A Double Life, about the people they had known together over 20 years, pairing her color images with his monochromes.

In the late 1990s, his career revived, he moved to New York and taught at the International Center for Photography. He was miffed that his students there didn't know who he was talking about when he mentioned contemporaries like Diane Arbus. "There's not a lot of research to do" in a field that's only 150 years old, he pointed out.

In 2001, Hedi Slimane asked him to shoot backstage at Dior Homme's show, which led to a string of fashion shoots, including work for Burberry, Alexander Wang and Bottega Veneta.

"There are not a lot of upsides to the whole fashion thing," Armstrong told the Times, "but I like being around youth and getting a take on what they're thinking."

But he made those images about the models as much as the clothes, turning ads into portraits. "I like looking at clothes," he told the Times. "What I loathe is modern fashion photography -- the bells and whistles and light and foolishness."

His work is in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum in New York, the archives of high-end fashion magazines and his five photo books, which include The Silver Cord (1997), All Day Every Day (2002) and 615 Jefferson Avenue (2011).

Pierson summed up Armstrong's accomplishment in a remark to Time. "I do believe David's portraits will ultimately stand with the greatest ever created. He was an artist and humanist, arresting unutterably intimate moments with light."

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