A Conversation Between David Armstrong and Ryan McGinley

David Armstrong is a master of suggestion, and it is a testament to this sensibility that his portraits of underwear-clad young men, in various states of dishabille and nonchalant repose, do not come off as lurid or salacious. Despite the appearance, these are not hustlers captured post-coital or bored playthings of rich old men. These are in fact models posing for his new book, 615 Jefferson Avenue, his address in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. This is also where Ryan McGinley, himself a portraitist of soft-focus youth, caught up with the photographer on everything from growing up with his lifelong friend Nan Goldin to still getting stiffies in his fifties…

Ryan McGinley: Since this book is called 615 Jefferson, we should explain that it’s actually the address of your infamous brownstone in Brooklyn, New York. It is also some sort of flophouse for young male models.
David Armstrong: I love that.

What do you love about it? Do you just like being surrounded by pretty boys?
Oh yeah, don’t you? They’re very decorative. And they’re always so sweet—like having kids around. They make macaroni and cheese and watch TV. It’s fun to have them here and I like running a rooming house.

Do you feel like Udo Kier in My Own Private Idaho, where River Phoenix is scrubbing the table in his Dutch-boy outfit?
No, no, no. I never do. The thing is, I’m always the one doing all the work for them. Sometimes I feel like Mrs. Doubtfire.

It’s also a house of curiosities. It feels like being inside a fantasy book, or Pan’s Labyrinth. When I first came here I was blown away. I couldn’t get it out of my head.

Yeah, I had never seen anything like it, with all the various fabrics hanging everywhere and the feathers all over the place. The thousands of doll heads and dresses, different kinds of masks made by mental patients, dresses, gilded mirrors, all the furniture that looks like it’s been collected from different junk shops over the past 30 or 40 years. It’s also in the middle of the hood, in Bedford-Stuyvesant. The famous Bed-Stuy. Do or die. “Bed-Stuy do or die”—it’s associated with Notorious B.I.G., and to have this gay man own a massive brownstone right in the middle…
It is really funny. It’s interesting to me to see if I can gauge how people react to the house, because there are so many in fashion who come over and they don’t even want to sit down. They’re afraid of some infectious disease or something.

The house makes me think about the way photographers work. Irving Penn shot on the same backdrop for 50 years. I visited Richard Avedon’s studio after he died and I found it fascinating. He shot all of his pictures in a really small room, and I think that’s such an important fact to know. Your house is just a remarkable place to make photos.
Between the ages of 15 and 45, I’d lived in 32 apartments. I’d lived in Berlin, Germany, and then New Haven, Connecticut, directly before I got this place. I couldn’t afford New York and didn’t want to be in a small place. I came to Bed-Stuy by accident and never left because I found it intriguing. I first took an apartment across the street, and the woman who owned that also owned this. The first thing she said to me was that her mother-in-law was murdered here in 1995. She was 82 years old and had been stabbed to death by someone she was renting a room to. But the woman knew I wanted to buy a house and said, “So do you want to take a look at my mother-in-law’s house?” I said, “Sure.” We came over, and I said, “Yeah, it’s great. I love it.” It was a mess. Everything was black and covered in linoleum, but I could see that you could scrape it all off and it would be terrific. So I bought it.

I like to remove people from their daily routines in my photographs. Here you almost have them captive.
Totally. You know, I’ve been here for ten years now and I understand the light and how it changes with the seasons, the leaves, the directions, how the sun moves. At this time of the year, in early March, it’s the worst because the windows haven’t been opened, the cats want to go out, and everything is just so constraining.

How does the work in this book relate to your house?
The book contains stuff that was shot both here and at my house in Bovina, in upstate New York. It’s mostly portraits of boys I’ve taken since I bought both of the houses in 2000. Portraits that are like convicts of me working in commercial and fashion photography. They weren’t taken as part of any particular job—it was all shot either before or after the stylist arrived. I had never done commercial work before then, so these portraits were part of a large transition.

You’d never done anything commercial before 2000?
Before that I’d never done anything that was specifically for a publication. But from 2000 to 2004 so much commercial stuff was going on that I could also do other things. I started photographing boys one on one again, but this time being informed by the work I’d already done in the context of fashion. I’d meet the boys and say, “Come back later and we’ll do some real pictures.”

Like in Gia: A Portrait of a Supermodel?
Yeah, exactly: “Who wants to sit around and do some art photos?”

Yeah, but you know what I mean. It’s very strange: “the fusion of art and fashion.” Give me a fucking break. There really is no fusion, except at the bank. They really don’t intersect at all.

Your older work was all of your friends and people in your life. But this shift that came in 2000, of taking art portraits of models from agencies—you would never have arrived at this place if you hadn’t started shooting commercially. How did you approach this new way of working, and how did it merge with your aesthetic?
It’s a natural impulse for me to approach any picture that involves a person as though I’m making a portrait. When people first asked me to do fashion photography, I went and looked at fashion magazines, which I hadn’t done since I was a teenager, and I thought, “What the hell do they want me to do?” So I just did what I’d do at a portrait shoot. What interests me, as a challenge, is to do a fashion photograph and actually make a portrait of a person that expresses some kind of emotional content. Which is exactly what they do not want. Especially anything that indicates any kind of adversity. I’ve always been known for making really melancholy portraits. All they want is young people laughing, running, jumping, having a ball in their new clothes. That’s not what I’m into. What is essential to my work is a kind of longing. Unfulfilled desire. That’s what it’s always been about, and I don’t even know where it came from. It’s not something I intended. It’s certainly not what sells clothing.

Longing on both sides of the lens? A model’s expression being one of longing and desire, or is it more about you?
It’s my view. It’s always very much a self-portrait, I think.

You’re using your camera to get to know somebody. What do you take away from it?
It’s in the most infinitesimal details. The tiny things that people do—even in the course of a day you understand a little bit more of who they are. Also, the different dynamics between when you are a contemporary of these people and when you’re old enough to be their father, or their grandfather, it’s insane. It’s like being able to observe a completely different world. Often they don’t have a lot of your cultural references.

How do you achieve that dynamic given the age difference? Tell me a little about your approach: When someone comes over for a shoot, what’s the first question you ask? 
“How old are you?” And then I ask, “What kind of underwear do you have on?”

Ha! Even before that, there’s something about that moment when you first see the person you’re going to photograph through the door, before they enter your house.
You’re either shocked, or like, “Oh my god, he’s got a hunchback.”

In some ways it is like being a director.
Right. But then that moment does happen. You realize, “OK, this is a collaboration with this person and this person is really relating to me in a way that is surprising me.” I’ve always had that aspect of myself, but it’s a sublimation of sexuality—I feel like that’s the point where we’re actually fucking. It’s really intimate. But you’re right: Then it’s gone. Just like everything else, it’s ephemeral. It’s not going to last.

Your photos look like the moment either before or after you have sex with someone. It’s that moment when you have your head on a pillow and you’re looking at the person that you love whose head is on another pillow.
I think that when you work on something, you think, “OK, what just happened, and what’s going think, “OK, what just happened, and what’s going to happen?” But with my work I think, “Nothing. This is it. This is what happened. There’s nothing before and there’s not something after. This is a portrait, it’s not about a narrative.”

In your portraits it’s all about the eyes—it’s not about the mouth. How much of that is achieved in the edit?
You know, it’s so different with everybody, and it’s really about feeling someone out. I’ve always had this thing for worshiping boys. When I was 23 I thought it was hot to have a 19-year-old boyfriend who worked as a hustler. Now I don’t have sex, not in the physical sense—I just don’t. It is completely a virtual thing.

Do the photographs fulfill that?
No, not at all. But I think there’s no other solution to it. I certainly don’t want to have sex with somebody my age. It makes me sick to even think about it.

It’s just not a turn on. I wouldn’t want to have sex with me, so…

That’s interesting.
I like having sex with hustlers, but I haven’t done that in probably five years. Now that is fun, but it’s a clear-cut transaction.

How long have you been making photographs for now?
I’ve been making photographs since I was 19 or 20. In 1974 I was 20. I turned 57 in May.

Almost 40 years.
Yeah, but I took four years off for good behavior. 

When? And why?
When I got sober in Boston in 1984, because I thought photography was part of all that had gone radically wrong in my life. Which it was, actually.

I only say that because I would rationalize all my bad behavior, like, “I’m a sensitive artist, I’m still making beautiful photographs, and that’s all I have to do.” But that’s not all you have to do. A whole part of life had disintegrated.

So those four years off helped you.
Yeah, I wish I’d never come back to New York in 1990—I’d have had a life. But it was a big decision, whether I would stay in Boston or go back. Nan Goldin really forced the issue and I came back. At the time, I knew the choice: Do I want a life or do I want to be a photographer? And I thought maybe I could do both.

No, you can’t. Nobody can.
I should have just stayed in Boston. It’s much better to have a life.

I tried to steer away slightly from the subject of your relationship with Nan, but only because you two get pinned together so often and I feel that your work is obviously just so different. To me it seems much more about a friendship than a—
Collaboration? Whatever either of us do or say, Nan and I did actually bring each other up through our teen years, and that’s the fact of the matter. For that reason we’ve always had a bond that is incredibly close. You know Nan is an absolutely genius photographer. She’s a very important figure in my life.

Which other artists are you influenced by? Your work really reminds me of painting—specifically it reminds me of Vermeer, the way your source of light always comes from a nearby window.
The cycle that I really love so much is Renaissance painting going into Mannerism and then Baroque. I looked at paintings way before I’d ever looked at photographs, before I was 15. The painters that I like are mostly Italian and from the Renaissance. Vermeer is incredible, but it’s almost too complex for me. It’s the silent thing that’s all about emotion and lushness that I get off on: Andre del Sarto, Raphael. It starts around 1480 and goes into the mid-1500s with Mannerism and then Baroque, which is Caravaggio and all of that stuff.

Tell me about the connection between you and the model Boyd Holbrook. Would you call him your muse?
Yeah, absolutely.

That’s Boyd in the bathtub on the cover of this book. When was that taken and where?
That’s the second time I shot Boyd and it was here at 615 Jefferson. It was the beginning of 2003.

I love that photo. It reminds me so much of Kurt Cobain.
Yeah, I really love it too. That’s when Boyd and I got to know each other more than any other time.

What is it about Boyd that’s made you want to photograph him for the last decade?
That’s a question I really try to ask myself all the time. I met him at Dior in 2002. He was so shy he wouldn’t even talk. I would see him at castings back in the States and I would always say, “Oh yeah, Boyd.” There would be like a 150 models and I didn’t have to talk to any of them—I’d just say, “I want him.” He was very engaging and I think somehow he brought up issues with this idea of youth, something paternal that just sustained itself. He was really proactive, too. He would leave notes on my door when I didn’t really even know who he was. He was very curious.

How has photographing him contributed to the relationship?
It’s a way of communicating with him, of trying to understand him. It’s like seeing someone grow up in front of your eyes. He kind of looked at me as a mentor and I looked at him in one way as a muse but—

It’s almost a father-son relationship.
Yeah, it’s a lot of different things: a father-son relationship, a friendship. Certainly I was madly in love with Boyd, but I wasn’t going to make those advances. For various reasons.

You’re in love with him with your camera.

Why you don’t photograph people nude? For the work that you do it seems like it would make so much sense. It’s actually really cool that you don’t.
I’m not very good at it. I used to try it and I’ve been thinking lately that there are certain people who would be suited for it. I always felt like I hadn’t had enough experience with shooting nudes to wrap myself around it and figure out how to make it look the way I wanted to. Somehow it’s kind of that whole Hollywood thing with me, where it was more sexy with a bit of something on. I do love that kind of…suggestion.

I think that makes it all so sexy—the clothes add so much to the sexual aspect of the photograph.
I do love to see who’s got a really great dick, to see the outline of it with what they’re wearing. It’s just not as sexy in my pictures.

Do you ever get aroused during photo shoots?
Oh yeah. That’s when I know it’s going to be good. Don’t you? I get a hard-on, definitely.

No, it’s not sexual to me at all.
When something is going to be really good I definitely get a stiffy.

Is that the extent of your relationship to sexuality in your work? Do you think the photographs you’ve included here are gay?
Yeah. Don’t you? I classify myself as a gay urban folk photographer.