David Armstrong Reclines on a Chaise Longue for a Consultation about His Life

Interview by Felix Burrichter

Photographer David Armstrong has lived in Bedford Stuyvesant since the late ’90s. He occupies 14 rooms and 4000 square feet over four floors of a townhouse that’s filled with antique furniture, photo equipment, draped fabric, dried flowers, a vast assembly of random objects and a piano. It is here that he shoots most of his photographs of young men — models, friends, hustlers. David’s work captures a romantic innocence that belies his often-tumultuous life. When I meet him on an early Sunday afternoon, he first walks me through his home’s many different rooms and fixes us some hearty Bloody Maries. Once in the main salon, David lights the first of many Newport Menthol 100s, and gets comfortable on an antique daybed.

Felix: You look like you’re ready for your psychoanalytical close-up.
David: I would like to go into analysis actually, but it would have to be real Freudian analysis.
Sooo, tell me about your mother…
You’re not a psychiatrist though? Are you a trained Freudian psychiatrist?
Well no, but…
There’s a big difference between a therapist and an analyst. Analysis is very intense. I had a friend who went every day, five days a week. On the other hand I’ve had such bad therapists. It’s like I’m smarter than them, you know. That’s why I think psychiatry is much more interesting because I want to know what happened before. What someone is is much less interesting than how they came to be that way. The back-story, you know?
Let’s figure out the back-story why and how you moved into this house, and this neighborhood.
I actually moved here completely by accident. I had just gotten back from Berlin, then New Haven, which are both places where you could get huge places and yards for nothing. So when I came back to New York, I didn’t want to live in Manhattan again. I was already totally over it — but I had also never been to Brooklyn in my life, even though I had lived in and around New York since 1977. One day, sometime in 1998, I was on the A-Train and I didn’t realize it was Express, so I ended up on Nostrand Avenue here in Bedford Stuyvesant, which I was petrified of. It was the middle of the summer and the whole street looked like Zap Comix, you know… it was just like one white girl with a pimp — it was just madness. But I started walking around the streets because I thought the architecture was really lovely, I just kept seeing all these beautiful villas. That’s when I decided that I wanted to live in BedStuy. So I started calling realtors but they all thought I was totally crazy because at that point this area was still considered dangerous. But eventually I met this guy, Johnny Devins, and he showed me all over, and I eventually moved in here.

David Armstrong, 2011, self-portrait, assisted by Baker Wardlaw

How would you describe the interior of your house now? It’s not a minimalist gallery, that’s for sure…
Oh no, it’s a hoarder’s tomb! I think it would make a great funeral parlor, actually. (laughs) My idea is to have me encased in a glass box in the back parlor, like the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston: open to the public but nothing can be moved from the day that I die. I think of the house as my never-ending art piece, in a way.
What kind of things do you hoard? For example, what’s the chair I’m sitting on?
Oh, that’s just a cheap rip-off. I don’t know why I bought it. It was a pair and for some reason I knew they weren’t real but they also weren’t expensive and so I thought they’d be a good as photo props… but they’re really hideous.
Have you always been living alone in this house?
Well, me and my cats. (laughs) Actually, Boyd, one of my dearest friends and favorite models, has lived here. This kid Jared lived with me here for a year, which was terrific. Whenever people need a place to stay, there’s always tons of room.
Do you like having lots of space?
I guess I do. It’s funny because I like to sleep in tiny bedrooms.
Where is your bedroom?
On the top floor. But it changes all the time. I do a lot of work downstairs and so I also sleep there. I will go up and down doing various things in the house during the day, and at night… I think the reason I always have a huge bag whenever you see me is because I never know where in the house I’m going to sleep.
Do your bedrooms have certain meanings? Let’s say, is one reserved for boyfriends, or is it free for all?
They do for me, because it’s about who’s been in there. For example this was Boyd’s bedroom, and kind of still is, even though he doesn’t live here anymore. And the room I’m sleeping in now is technically Jared’s room. My assistant Clark also stayed there for almost a year when he was breaking up with his wife. So I either call it the Clark Tolton suite or the Jared Branch Suite. The last time I had a boyfriend here… actually, no, I haven’t had boyfriends here, but I’ve had hustlers over, during that period when I was taking the hustler pictures.

Boyd, 2010, by David Armstrong

Was there a specific sex room for that?
No, but at one point I was thinking of putting up a gimp cage in the basement.
What is a gimp cage?
A gimp is one those guys you just keep in a cage, in a sort of dungeon. I mean, I wouldn’t really do it, but it’s an S&M kind of thing. I think a gimp in the circus was someone who bit the heads off of chickens.
That can come in handy. Deep down do you consider yourself a romantic person?
Yes. But I won’t even have another relationship now unless I go into analysis because I totally subjugate my own character. For example I could never be friends with the people I am lovers with. I assume this other identity for them where it becomes all about their needs — it’s ridiculous!
I remember you saying earlier that you would like to be a hippie and you wish you could live “off the grid.” That’s also a very kind of romantic idea.
Yeah, I’ve always wanted to be a hippie. I think it also has to do with how and when I grew up. And it had a lot to do with Nan. We were both in this hippie free school which was really just a school for kids who had been kicked out of every private school in the northeast… because of drugs or whatever. So the parents just started their own school.
You’re from Massachusetts?
Yeah, from Lexington, near Boston. Right where the whole Revolutionary War started. But this school was called Satya and was actually in Lincoln. We didn’t do anything there, just smoke pot and read the school diary at school meetings. It was just 20 or 30 kids.
So you and Nan actually know each other from high school?
Yeah. We met when we were both fourteen. We’ve kind of gone in and out of each other’s lives at different points.
Are you two in or out right now?
We kind of talk a lot on the phone and we email. I see her sometimes when she is here and I see her sometimes when I’m in Paris. We did go through a difficult period at one point, but a couple years ago we started talking a lot again.
How did you even start working as a photographer?
Nan influenced me a lot. She and I went to art school at the same time and we were very close and we’d been hanging out together all the time. Nan wanted to be a photographer from the time I met her… this was probably back in 1974. As it turned out the only people that paid me any attention at the whole school were the photo department. By the end of that they put me in the advance photo seminar. The second year I had to decide what I really wanted to do so I decided I would make photos. I already knew a lot of stuff from Nan and her big thing is that she doesn’t like to go outside of her world to make photographs; and I think that I felt the same way. The only people of real interest to me were the people I knew. My boyfriends, or my friends or… it was a portrait style that was a pastiche of Nadar, Irving Penn, Diane Arbus and all the portrait photographers that I liked, like Julia Margret Cameron. The big difference between Nan’s work and mine was that she was always doing something very forward, and I was not.
You you didn’t really start shooting fashion until much later in your career.
Yes, I didn’t start shooting fashion until 2001, actually. I was commissioned to shoot a portrait of Hedi Slimane. He came here to my house and after the portrait Hedi said to me “Do you want to come to Paris the week before the collection, while everything is coming together? I’ll give you a room with a studio and you can shoot portraits of whoever you want to.” And I thought great, because I really liked him.

David Armstrong, 1977, by his ex-boyfriend Kevin, taken in New York

In order to photograph someone, do you have to be sexually attracted to the person in one way or another?
I think there is a reason you choose someone to photograph or want to photograph somebody. You definitely have to feel something about them.
Do you have a type?
I do, but it’s a bit all over the place. I go through different things, white guys, black guys, Latinos. I really like drop-dead gorgeous, though. That moment when you want to faint when you first see them. And I like young guys. I kind of have an age limit that’s a cut-off, like 26 or something. If I think they are 20 and then it turns out they’re 29, then I’m totally turned off. (laughs) It is something that’s always been there. I remember my first boyfriend when I moved to New York: I was 23 and he was 19. I found that really a turn-on, that he was still a teenager.
Is there a rational criterion for someone that makes you faint?
No, you just know it. And I still experience it. I remember there was a big shoot last week and we had a big casting. This kid was there, Keith, he was just so lovely. He was Dominican and I started talking to him and we’ve phoned each other three or four times since then. But it’s never really a sexual thing, only in the realm of fantasy. I’d never have sex with those boys ever. Actually, I don’t have sex anymore, period.
Why not? Are you over it?
No, I’m not over it, so I don’t know really. When I broke up with my last boyfriend I really got into hustlers. That was fun.
But wasn’t it also part of a work project?
Yes, and it ended up being quite an expensive project because, you know, it was all by the hour. (laughs) But I was really getting into that. I would have all these hustlers wait at the hotels where I was going.
Did you use to do a lot of drugs?
Oh, yeah. A lot, a lot of drugs. I loved it. That’s what that period in the 70’s was all about. Tons of drugs. I remember when I first arrived in New York the first party I went to, people were just doing coke and shooting dope in the bathroom, you know, in a very social context.
Do drugs still hold some sort of interest for you now?
I was totally sober for more than 17 years and I actually completely left New York for Boston to get sober. I stopped taking pictures and the whole deal because I really was in such a state. But I always told myself that if I hit 50 I would do whatever I want. So now I do drugs that are actually prescribed… and in the past year I’ve been doing a little coke. It really is terrific, but the next day it’s so hideous — it just makes you feel like shit.
Why do you smoke menthol cigarettes?
Well, the last time I quit for three years and then I started again, smoking Camels with no filter but they were killing my throat. So a friend of mine suggested I smoke Newports because she said they were “refreshing.” And ever since then I’ve been smoking Newports. I went from regular filters to Newport Lights, to Newport Lights 100. Which is very old lady-like, I think. (laughs) And have you ever looked at their campaigns? They’re totally sexual! There was one when I first moved here, of a black guy, placed in the suburbs, and he was watering the lawn with a big hose, and he had the hose right between his legs.
You said earlier, that unless you do analysis that you would not be in a relationship again.
Yes, because I’d rather be by myself than become what I am when I’m with somebody. Also, I’m too old to find anyone to be with anyways, really. And on top of all that when you’re approaching guys in their twenties you’re not going to go: “Oh yeah, one other thing: I’m HIV positive and have Hepatitis C… would you like to be my boyfriend?” It seems unseemly, anyways, being with the boys I like and being my age — It’s grotesque. (laughs) But then I’m also a die-hard romantic. Even in backrooms with hustlers, I’ve thought “I’m in love with this person.” There was this one Latino guy that I photographed a lot and I did have sex with him, usually. He was always like “You’re the only one.” I was really into him saying that, but then I thought “Yeah, the only one in the past two hours.” (laughs)
Do you consider yourself more of a top or a bottom?
Top. That’s the only thing I like to do. I’m a femme top, kind of a lesbian. I did have one boyfriend who was a painter who loved to fuck me… he was always telling me how much he loved me and how beautiful I was, and he was a painter and a really good one, but not so good looking. He had bad skin. But I really loved him too, but the only thing that happened between us physically is that he would fuck me. He never kissed me.
That’s a bit strange.
It was great though, I loved it because the sex was so not what I’m into, but I was into it then. It was pretty much the only time that I enjoyed bottoming.
Is there a lot of cruising going on here in the neighborhood?
There’s this ancient gay bar on Franklin and Atlantic Avenue called Langston Lounge. I used to go there a lot when I first came here. But most of the guys in the neighborhood are on the down low. But not very long ago I was in the city and I decided to take the subway back home and I got on the train on West 4th Street and the entire car was filled with these screaming queens, very Paris is Burning-style. Like, “Eat my pussy,” and all this. Then we get to my stop and they all get off there. And I thought, “Where are these guys during the day?” because you never see them. It’s funny though, a lot of fashion people have moved out here. There was this guy who I saw earlier this year when I was out at night. He was just so turned out and so elegant and he was walking an Italian miniature greyhound, just so thin but so beautiful. A few days later I saw him with his girlfriend or his wife. I don’t know what they do but they are really intriguing. And sometimes in the summer it’s just hysterical, because you’ll see these couples jogging down Stuyvesant Avenue past the crack dealers and you don’t know anymore who’s crazier.

His home in Bedford Stuyvesant, 2011, by David Armstrong

Did anything ever happen to you?
No, thank god. I remember one time a few years ago when I lived across the street, it was about four in the morning and a couple of those gang kids were coming towards me. I thought “Oh fuck!” But when I passed the kids one of them just said, “Oh, he’s going to an E-party,” like I’m on Ecstasy. They must all think I’m a crazy retarded person. That includes my neighbors…
How so?
I guess I’m really not into families. My new neighbors, they’re really nice and everything and I like the kid a lot, but I know they’re always thinking “Who is that weird perv over there?” I mean, there have been weird situations: you know, I shoot boys over here all the time, one on one, or two guys and me. There was one situation just a few months ago, where the kid barely had anything on and I’m like giving him two 20’s on the front step to go get some food. But it didn’t look good. That’s happening all the time. The funniest stories date back to when I just got the house and I was doing all the high fashion stuff. A lot of it was for French Vogue, and there would always be a stream of limousines in front of my house, and Carine Roitfeld climbing on my roof in high heels. It was just so bizarre. There was a guy next door whose name was Black and had just gotten out of prison. He had this huge dog and whenever we would have a fashion shoot in the backyard he would beat the dog, unmercifully. One day he actually had the dog hanging… just to get attention. And one summer I remember not seeing him anymore, and I asked my neighbor, “Where is Black?” and said, “Oh, he slit someone’s throat, he’s back in prison.” But especially the older people really watch out for you, those ladies are so nosy, they know everything that is going on. They know whose coming in and out of the house. They’ll just sit there looking at the street all day.
I heard you say before that you can’t wait to turn 60 yourself.
Yeah. If I make it to 60. Because then you can just say I’m old. I mean, I say that now but really I’m only 57. Of couse it’s hideous getting older. But it also brings the kind of relief of being able to say “no” to whatever it is you’re asked to do.

David Armstrong’s new book Night and Day will be out this spring with Mörel books.

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