David Armstrong relishes the one-on-one intimacy of shooting without the
airbrushed, over-styled deception of modern picture taking — which is
abundantly apparent in his new monograph, 615 Jefferson Avenue (Damiani, $45), a dreamy collection of angelic, seemingly vulnerable young men.
The 57-year-old artist has spent almost 20 years in New York City and uses his Bedford-Stuyvesant Brooklyn address as the setting and title of this series. The errant models are bathed in muted natural light, mostly half-naked or outfitted inconspicuously (except for the occasional tutu). Their portraits emanate a beatific listlessness indicative of the trust the boys put in the photographer.
Armstrong met the artist Jack Pierson in 1980 in Provincetown, although Pierson likes to say that Armstrong's reputation -- as a subject, peer, and friend of fellow photographer Nan Goldin -- preceded him. "There was a build up to meeting him," he recalls to protests ("I must have been such a letdown") from the soft-spoken photographer.
The two friends invited Out editor-in-chief Aaron Hicklin to eavesdrop on a conversation that swerved between the problems of recruiting models from Facebook, whether Americans are comfortable being eroticized, and why Armstrong will never shoot a catalogue for Victoria's Secret.
Jack: Your new book is so pretty, I can't believe it. Are a lot of these portraits from fashion sittings?
David: Some, and then maybe half are done with someone I met at a shoot.
Jack: You really get into relationships with them all. I find that fascinating, because I'm much too shy, but you can really hang out with them. It's nice.
David: Some of them I've gotten really close with, but not all. It is nice.
Jack: Well, you have the house. They come hang out with you -- that's the difference.
David: Right. Some of them. There's, like, maybe 10 who do.
Jack: You don't charge these boys anything to stay?
David: I do, but the house costs a fortune to run. The utilities are $1,500 a month.
Jack: Because they all have their computers plugged in probably, and video games and all the TVs going. You should put everything on a meter that they have to feed quarters into.
David: I'm very vigilant about shutting everything off.
Jack: And you've got a big TV that keeps them entertained. If they just moved in, that would be fine, but it's the dating--
David: --It's not dating.
Jack: No, but I mean it's the getting to know them.
David: [Sings 'Getting to Know You'] Well, you have a life partner and everything.
Jack: I guess, but he wouldn't mind having them all around. Do your boys contact you on Facebook and say, "Can I take a picture?"
David: No, they just want to say, "Oh, I love your photos."
Jack: Because they see them in fashion magazines? Nobody gets in touch with me on Facebook.
David: They do, too. You had, like, 9,000 friends when we were in Florence.
Aaron: But that's how you find your boys, through Facebook?
David: No, not at all. I mean kids leave a message, and I find that very touching. But very few Americans contact me.
Aaron: Maybe Americans are lesscomfortable being eroticized.
David: Well, I don't think so. There are armies of boys who want to be eroticized in America.
Jack: And are you shooting as many girls, but just not including them in the book? Because it seems like these would easily transfer. It's not like these boys are beefcakes.
David: For every 10 boys, there's a girl.
Jack: But girls are where the money is. What about a nice Victoria's Secret catalog? That would pay quite a lot.
David: I almost did Victoria's Secret, but, as usual, they got a person who does a sanitized version of my style. Because they want to control the whole thing, they want it to be completely sterile, they want to take anything real out of it.
Jack: But these aren't real! These are practically [Hollywood glamour photographer George] Hurrell.
David: But I don't like having stylists around. I don't like having a hairdresser around. Makeup. I don't like any of that. Lately, I say no one can even come near me. It drives me crazy when they're looking at the pictures as you take them. Last week, I was doing something for Vogue Homme and I loved the stylist, I loved the hair and makeup team, but they were in there like every time I pressed the button. And we had to do eight shots in the course of the day, and I just said, "If we're going to get more than two pictures done today, you can't do that. It really doesn't matter if one hair is out of place."
Jack: But none of these have a hair out of place or anything wrong.
David: Most of these I took on my own, just the subject and me. The thing is that no one knows what the picture looks like, except for the person behind the camera. The whole thing about being a photographer is navigating through what you think you're seeing and what the camera is getting. It's very intimate when you get into it.
Jack: The reason I say yes to fashion stories every once in a while is because maybe there'll be one picture that goes further, and they'll set it up. And I will be somewhere to take it, because otherwise I could spend my whole life going, 'Oh, he would be good to photograph.'
David: Listen, I can be on my deathbed and if I have to do a photo shoot, I love it. It brings me back to life. I really do love getting involved in taking the pictures and more so as I get older. I like it very much, the making of the pictures.
Jack: And do you get initially disappointed whenever you see the contact sheets?
Jack: No? Oh, that's so good. I always feel, like, "Oh, I fucked up. These are horrible."
David: But my work is always like that. It's mostly horrible pictures and then a great one. That's also why I hate people looking at them, because I trust in myself that there's going to be something pretty good, but I really don't want to start processing it until a bit later. Because at the time that you're doing it, there's this whole sense of urgency that something has to be great. And as the day goes on, it doesn't seem so crucial anymore. 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. Or, at least something you can rub one out to.