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RIP Photographer David Armstrong

Allen Frame reflects on the life of photographer David Armstrong, who died in Los Angeles on Saturday at age 60.

by Allen Frame
Oct 28 2014, 3:00pm

David Armstrong in Boston, 1973. All photos by Allen Frame

I met David Armstrong through Nan Goldin in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1973. He was 19.

Nan and I were taking classes at a photo school called Imageworks in Kendall Square, and David would join us for lunch at a diner nearby. He had not started photographing yet. He was putting together a portfolio of drawings to apply to the Boston Museum School, where he and Nan enrolled the next year. They came over to my dorm room where I had a suite to myself in a converted residential hotel near Radcliffe that Harvard had just bought, and we started going out together to gay clubs in Boston that Nan and David already knew well—1270, the Other Side, 25 Lansdowne Street.

They had been students at the Satya Community School, a small alternative high school first in Cambrige, then in Lincoln, along with their muse Suzanne Fletcher, who had known David since fifth grade. Nan was the school photographer, working with polaroids. She was influenced mostly by films, which were easy to see then in repertory, and French and Italian Vogue. Suzanne went off to Columbia in New York but returned for a summer to live with them on Boston’s Beacon Hill, where Nan began creating her first body of work, in black and white, depicting her roommates at home by day and then in drag contests and shows by night at the Other Side.

“We would spend the afternoon getting dressed, then go to the Other Side,” remembers Suzanne. After she returned to school in the fall, the apartment building burned down, and Suzanne remembers the picture in the Boston Globe of Nan and David standing outside in their kimonos.

By the fall of '73 when I met him, David had stopped doing drag and was presenting himself as an androgynous, denim-clad boy, not unlike the alluring youths he later made his reputation photographing. At the Museum School, David switched to photography and the “Boston School” of photography was launched. The chemistry between him and Nan and their mutual dedication to the depiction of an American artist bohemia galvanized the Boston photo scene and influenced younger kindred spirits like Mark Morrisroe and Jack Pierson.

Armstrong in the author's dorm room at Harvard, 1973

When I left Cambridge in 1974, David and Nan were living in a duplex at 96 Pleasant Street with David’s ex, the ethereal-looking blonde painter Tommy Chesley, and Laurie Sagalyn, another young photographer. (Nan told me last week that she has recently found a long-lost photo album from those days on Pleasant Street.) This was the era of early disco and retro glamor, Barry White and David Bowie. I remember putting David in stitches with my impersonation of a New Orleans stripper after a trip to Mardi Gras. And when I think of him, I think of his sense of humor, expressed with a nonchalant affect. He found the absurdities of human behavior endlessly amusing.

He loved style and beauty, but his gift was to uncover the vulnerability and tenderness beneath the mask, under the skin of physical beauty. He had been strongly influenced by the great fashion and studio photographers of the first half of the 20th century. It’s satisfying to think of his completing the circle in the last decade with fashion and editorial work worthy of the classic portraiture that inspired him.

Nan Goldin, Boston, 1973

Nan, David, and I all moved to New York around 1977, they from Boston and I from Mississippi. We were all photographing our various talented friends in the downtown scene but with entirely different approaches, Nan with her signature spontaneity, all about context and relationships, and David in a classically posed, formal portrait mode, studio-style but in the subject’s environment. His subjects were young and stylish and he intensified their impact with a brooding, noirish 1940s mood. He photographed Nan herself (his photos of her are the best anyone has taken), and she photographed him in sunglasses reclining poolside glamorously in Provincetown, Massachusetts. He created elegant depictions of some of the iconic personalities of that scene—Cookie Mueller, Sharon Niesp, Rene Ricard, Greer Lankton, Suzanne Fletcher, and others, like artist Christopher Wool and David’s stunning boyfriend Kevin McPhee, who died of AIDS in 1983. (Kevin was the prototype for the procession of nordic-looking models who came David's way in the last decade.)

By 1981 David was being included with a large number of these portraits in the sweeping zeitgeist-y PS1 show, New Wave New York, which also introduced Jean Michel Basquiat. His career seemed set but addiction got in the way, and he wound up going back to Boston and spending years there in sobriety. When Nan followed suit for her first rehab in Boston, he was there for her, and when she moved to Berlin in the early 90s on a grant, she persuaded him to join her and wound up giving him the kick he needed to get back to photography. 

David Armstrong in Boston, 1973

The book they collaborated on in 1994, A Double Life, was a revelation. Their portraits of the same people they had both photographed separately over 20 years, were juxtaposed, hers in color, his in black and white, their different styles in paired pages creating a meditation on time, friendship, and formal issues in photography. David then started making abstracted black and white landscapes, quiet, full of yearning and a sense of solitude, and he began to show them with new portraits in a series of exhibitions at Matthew Marks from 1995 to 2004. He returned to New York in the late 90s and was teaching at the International Center of Photography and living in Bed-Stuy in a rambling old house which he decorated lavishly with an eclectic collection of antique furniture, art, and fabrics. This became his base, his studio, as he also began to do assignments there and to rent out the house for other shoots. Gradually his landscapes and portraits had shifted to color, and now included New York cityscapes and sexy men in hotel rooms whom he had met in his neighborhood or in Time Square near the cheap hotels he used as locations.

He curated a show of photography in 2001 for the Photographic Resource Center in Boston, a set of landscapes he ironically called Rocks and Trees, referring to the genre of traditional landscapes he and Nan had been reacting against when they first started photographing their social milieu in the 70s. He came over to my apartment to select some work for it, and I remember his telling me that he had just been tested for HIV for the first time. He had had to get a checkup in order to apply for a mortgage on a house upstate, and he discovered his T-cell count was dangerously low. All those years, surrounded by friends dying of AIDS, including his boyfriend Kevin, and he had never had an HIV test. He laughed at himself and his own state of denial as he told me; of course, the doctor put him on a strict regimen right away. He died on Saturday in Los Angeles after a battle with liver cancer, far from his home but right in the legendary place that had inspired him with its dreams and fantasies of glamor and beauty.

See David Armstrong's contributions to VICE here.

Allen Frame lives in New York where he teaches photography at the School of Visual Arts, Pratt Institute, and the International Center of Photography. He is represented by Gitterman Gallery.