David Armstrong (1954–2014)

David Amstrong, George in the water, Provincetown, 1977.

“HI, DOLL,” was David’s usual greeting when I saw him. “Hi, doll,” or “my dear darling,” or, if he was feeling inclined toward the black-and-white cinematic, a crooning “fix the kids a drink, George” (this is a line from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), or just as often, some trademark Davidism such as, “I’ve just spent Christmas in a deep and probing excursion into the world of emotional extortion and psychic depravity—good times.” It occurs to me now that David was the only friend whom I greeted with a kiss on the lips. It wasn’t sexual—I wasn’t his type. It was a soft peck, an intimate reminder that the family of slightly damaged orphans we had all become was, for an hour or an afternoon around David, complete.

The question of biography is a loaded one when evaluating the work of artists—particularly photographers such as David, who relied as much on formal structures as the intimacies he created with subjects in the temporary safety zones of his camera frame. He made no attempt to hide his personal connections to what he shot—from the friends and lovers he photographed in his hauntingly candid and restlessly raw images from 1970s and ’80s downtown New York and Provincetown to his light-fueled portraits of young men taken in the 2000s at his brownstone at 615 Jefferson Avenue in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. I’ve always thought that David’s work was about time: how he manages to unfreeze the still image, to let it drift a few seconds forward and backward in his lens, like he was capturing breathing or the charged air around his sitters. It isn’t timelessness but time, stretching and bending, that gives his prints their lasting life.

In his black-and-white photograph George in the water, from 1977, it is the direct heavy-lidded stare of the young man with his mouth slightly open that seems to wave and recede in front of the viewer far more than the ocean in which he is submerged. David’s biography, like most, was filled with loves and losses—only his hits came earlier and quicker, as a survivor of the raging death toll of the ’80s. I remember admiring his photograph of a handsome young man lying on the floor, arms folded around his head and looking up coyly at the camera, in his 2012 book Night and Day, and David saying: “That’s Kevin, my first BF in New York, at Palm Beach Towers right after New Years 1978. He was the only boy who ever really loved me. He succumbed to the ‘gay cancer’ in 1983 shortly before his twenty-fifth birthday.” I can’t speak to David’s biography. I met him long after those nights and days, after he left New York for Boston and Europe and returned a decade later to the city. But I can give a sense of the gorgeous, feral poet whose eye had been trained on those minutes and years.

David Armstrong. Photo: Ben Grieme.

I met David in 2000, when New York had not yet entirely given in to the nostalgia of the tougher, meaner, and seemingly more authentic eras of downtown bohemianism in which David had a leading part. Even then, he struck me as an endangered animal, not only for enduring drugs and AIDS and the vicious carnival of art-world favoritism (we are, I’m afraid, least kind to photographers), but because he was simply so unlike any other human I’d ever met, vulnerable and resilient and so sure of predilections and curiosities and the itching improvisations of his mind and the constellation of poets, artists, writers, and film scenes that made up his emotive palette. To me, David didn’t seem to come from a series of places but time periods: the Whartonian 1900s, Tennessee Williams’s 1950s, two dashes of East Village 1980s, the reclusive Emily Dickinsonian 1860s while a war blazed somewhere south. If pushed, he could tell wonderful, deranged stories about his youth in Boston and Manhattan—about Nan Goldin, Cookie Mueller, Joey Gabriel, his lifelong soul mate Lisa, about friends jumping out of windows, OD-ing, or surviving on their humor and wits. Those names and stories of downtown New York seemed so much more alive and potent than ones of Warhol’s factory because they were red-blooded, not yet silvering into myth.

I might have been a romanticizer of David’s early days, but he wasn’t. He never turned his back on the present. Unlike many artists of his generation, he never closed the door to drift in a wilder, cloistered past that no longer existed. It might surprise only those who didn’t know David how many young friends he had. We collected around him naturally, and he simply became one of us. His brain was faster, his cultural references more kaleidoscopic and fleet-footed, but he had a dark, boyish humor and the rare inquisitiveness of someone who can be shocked by a bit of good gossip as if he hadn’t heard anything like that happening before.

His humor, now that was something to behold. I think maybe that was the glue that held the family we assembled around him together. He enjoyed the decay in the roses. I remember him telling me why he picked his particular bedroom in the country house in Bovina he shared with two friends. When he first toured the house, which had previously been owned by what sounded like an over-breeding Hells Angels’ biker gang, he went into an upstairs bedroom and saw that a child had written in crayon on the wall: “I LOVE YOU SO MUCH, MOMMY, I WANT TO DIE.” That had to be David’s room. He decorated it with a motley of fringed pillows and brocaded fabrics like his own bordello for one.

When I think of David, he is always perched on a sofa—especially in the last year, holed up at his devoted best friend James’s house in Manhattan. David walked gracefully. He was tall and agile and surprisingly strong in his thick black glasses. but there was a constant sense he might tip over at any moment into the closest, softest chair. He reminds me of a skinnier, far more benign King Sardanapalus lounging on his ornate divan in the famous painting by Delacroix, except instead of golden elephants and a harem of nude women around him, it would be one-eyed porcelain dolls and scurrying cats. That’s how he would meet the flames (likely caused by one of his Newport Menthol Golds). David had the ability to seem like he was always in need of an ambulette (a favorite word of his) but that he would never actually die. I don’t think, even when the end came rushing, any of us thought he would.

A lot of those who knew David well have said that he taught us how to live more freely, to be better selves. That might sound like a trite sentiment, something to say about an overzealous guidance counselor and not a man who considered Edith Bouvier Beale a role model. But in David’s case, it is absolutely true. Can life be an art? That notion cheapens life, not art. But David did make thinking and loving and an appreciation of failing beauty into a certain art form. Here, as an example, is an email he wrote me in June 2013:

I can think of nothing closer to paradise than lolling on the lawn there with you discussing the decline and fall of Miss Lily Bart between the years of 1905 and 1907, a story as old as NY. Lately I have been thinking she gives it all away with one phrase during her first interview with Selden at his flat in the Benedict: “I fear I’ve been about too much.” I’m afraid she had. Her two other killer lines are again, of course, to Selden, though each further and further down the spiral: “Where does dignity end and rectitude begin?” and (my personal fave) “We resist the great temptations, but finally it’s the little ones that bring us down.” GODDESS!!!!

He is talking, of course, about The House of Mirth. He is also talking about an aching, unapologetic connection to the art that he loves—the reason, for all of the noise and money, we hold these forms sacred and meaningful in the first place. David taught us that. Today, everyone has curated their lives down to the final, over-styled inch, but David’s curated life was one built from the deep, free depositories of literature, poems, film clips, romantic missions, dead sprays of Queen Anne’s lace, days watching the blur of the city, the scent of smoke and vetiver, his friends. Now that he has gone beyond the golden door, we are left with his life of photographs and our lives with him. We were so lucky, so fucking lucky, to have done time with him.

Christopher Bollen is a writer and editor in New York. His second novel, Orient, is out by HarperCollins in April 2015.