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The Days with David Armstrong

The Days with David Armstrong

This interview first appeared in the print version of RAIN magazine, fall 2016.

615 Jefferson Avenue” was photographer David Armstrong’s last and most cherished book. Its warm pages invite you into David’s world, a romantic one full of sensuality, beauty, and complex emotions. RAIN sits down with David’s assistant and friend, Derek DeWitt, an incredible photographer in his own right, to chat about his friendship with David and his time at David’s Bed-Stuy studio and home, 615 Jefferson Avenue.

An Interview with Derek DeWitt By Mark Benjamin

Polaroid portrait of David Armstrong by Derek DeWitt.

“SOMETIMES YOU WANT TO HAVE THE PERSON WEARING SUNGLASSES OR HOLDING A CIGARETTE … AND THERE’S DAVID

– Derek DeWitt

Mark Benjamin: Hi Derek. Thank you so much for chatting with me today.

Derek DeWitt: You’re very welcome. I’m excited; any excuse to talk about David.

MB: Tell me, where are you from?

DD: Mississippi. Jackson, Mississippi.

MB: How long have you been in New York?

DD: Since 2011, so five years. I just hit the five-year mark.

MB: That means you’re going to stay right?

DD: Yeah, well I can’t leave now. See, I never learned how to drive so I’m kind of trapped in a city with mass transit. I can’t go home because everybody there drives. And because it’s Mississippi.

MB: What made you move to New York? I’m from the south too, so I understand the urge to escape.

DD: Are you? Where?

MB: Houston, Texas.

DD: I think I realized that all the people I admired…photographers, designers, musicians, actors, etcetera, they all either were from New York or came to New York to do whatever it was they did. I thought I would follow suit. They came here to do their thing and I thought I’d do the same.

MB: How long have you been in photography?

DD: Since I was like fourteen…thirteen or fourteen. I started out with a lot of portraiture.

MB: Really?

DD: I was my only subject, you know. I didn’t think anyone else would know what I wanted in a photograph, so I just had to use myself and do a lot of different looks. It wasn’t a narcissistic thing. It’s Jackson, Mississippi so there was just me. Nobody else got my sensibility.

MB: I’m just picturing self-portraits like Cindy Sherman’s Society Portraits.

DD: Yeah, yeah. Trying on a lot of different personas, I guess.

MB: I got into photography at a young age too, like ten. I won an award for a photo. It was a competition for young photographers capturing youth in America. I took a photo of a family in my neighborhood. The competition came with a prize and hung at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and everything.

DD: Oh, cool.

MB: I actually hated taking pictures of people; I preferred taking photos of animals.

DD: Yeah, me too. I started out that way too—still-lifes, flowers, etcetera. Then, self-portraiture.

MB: Did you start with polaroids?

DD: No, digital, but it was actually through David that I got the idea to start shooting polaroids. He had boxes of Fujifilm FP-100C lying around. It fit some of the polaroid cameras, the Land Camera and the Big Shot, which is the one Warhol used. FP-100C fit those cameras, so that’s what I was using and they’ve just discontinue it. I just like the instant gratification of taking the photo, peeling it apart ninety seconds later, and seeing the picture. I like how the photos look too, but using it is not very efficient because the Land Camera has the Rangefinder, so it’s finicky—it took an hour to take one picture. I’ve gone back to digital for the time being. It’s, well, I don’t know. I try not to be a snob about it.

MB: I love your polaroids. They’re really incredible. I don’t think I’ve ever seen polaroids quite like that.

DD: No?

MB: No, they look like serious planned photographs.

DD: Yeah, it’s weird to do something so staged with a polaroid.

MB: I showed my friend, Francois Dischinger, also a photographer, some of your polaroids and they reminded him of Paul Outerbridge.

DD: Yeah! I love Paul Outerbridge! He did a lot of still lifes, but I love his portraits. I love Antonio Lopez’s polaroids or actually they were Kodak Instamatics. And Andy Warhol’s polaroids are really my favorite thing he ever did, yet I don’t think they were ever meant to be seen. They were just the basis for his–

MB: His screen prints, right?

DD: Yeah, the ones of all the celebrities and socialites. I think the polaroids are his best work.

MB: You know I kick myself because I walked past one of the big auction houses uptown and saw one of Andy Warhol’s polaroids with him in his fright wig for sale. It would have cleared out every last cent in my bank account, but looking back on it I kind of regret it. It was so cool.

DD: The funny thing is, when Christopher Makos was doing the shoot with Andy in drag, I guess Andy was taking polaroids of himself while he was getting ready, and then those became more well known than Makos’ photographs. His behind the scene self-portraits became more well known than the product of the shoot. You know what I mean? I also like Guy Bourdin. He always pointed the lights up at the subject, which created a big Nosferatu shadow behind them. It looks foreboding, like a girl laughing with wind in her hair but lit in this terrifying way.

MB: Right, I love that dichotomy in anything, like Kurt Cobain’s music and lyrics.

DD: Yeah, I like a good dichotomy. 

MB: How did you first meet David?

DD: Well, in November 2012, I got wind that he was looking for interns. “Intern” was a dirty word to me because I had moved to New York the year before and had done a slew of internships.

MB: Was this when they actually paid interns?

DD: Well no, have they ever? That’s the thing; they still don’t. It’s like slave labor – I get it. I had done several internships already, none of which led to anything. At the time I learned that David was looking, I was burned out on internships. But I thought, you know, it’s David Armstrong, maybe I should just try to arrange something.

MB: So, you had heard of him before?

DD: I had heard of him, but I wasn’t a big fan, to tell you the truth. Not because I didn’t like his work, but because I hadn’t looked into it enough then. I arranged a meeting with him and he asked me to start immediately.

MB: Tell me about that meeting. What was that like?

DD: I met him at his house, at 615 Jefferson Avenue, and in typical David fashion he had another meeting scheduled at the same time I was supposed to show up. He could be pretty scatterbrained. I was sitting there with this guy that owned a gallery, or something, and David is talking to both of us at the same time. He told me to start that Monday.

He had several interns working for him at the time. They all kind of disappeared in the following weeks, so I became the stalwart in his pool of interns. My first day was a shoot for L’Officiel Hommes with Rene Ricard. He was just fantastic and so funny. He got on this tangent about Joan Crawford and what an awful dancer she was. I’m a big Joan Crawford fan, and she was a hoofer, like a flapper type dancer. Clunky. But MGM tried to put her over as some kind of classically trained dancer. She was teamed up with Fred Astaire once which certainly didn’t show her dancing to its best advantage. I knew exactly what Rene was talking about and we had a laugh.

There were a lot of people there that day, and I knew some of them didn’t know who he was. They probably thought he was weird. I thought he was great. I knew of him anyway, and this is becoming more about Rene Ricard than David now. David and Rene went way back, and it was fun to listen to them reminisce. An auspicious first day. I remember thinking, “I don’t care if I don’t get paid; I’m having so much fun.”

MB: It’s the experience itself?

DD: Yeah, I wasn’t expecting anything, but David did actually hire me a few months later, and I became an assistant. The fact that he thought enough of me to take me seriously that way.

[Derek trails off for a moment] You know, that he was confident enough in me. I appreciated it so much. It meant a lot to me. It was sort of my first job.

MB: How long did you work for him?

DD: Well, I started in November 2012 and my last day was in December 2013, so just a little over a year. The only reason I stopped working for him was because he moved to Massachusetts. I mean, it wasn’t really practical.

We did do a back-and-forth thing for a few months. He still had business in New York and needed a go-between person, so I did work for him a little bit after he moved. I went up and visited him in Massachusetts. He bought this colonial house that’s on the National Register of Historic Places, and he was so proud of it. The Captain John Brewer house.

MB: That sounds like a David thing to do. It looks like he had an obsession with antiques and such.

DD: Yeah, and he created the same atmosphere there as he had in Bed-Stuy.

MB: I think those antiques and objects really lent to his images. They added another dimension; it takes you to a different world, David’s world.

DD: Oh, they totally did. You couldn’t help but feel it as soon as you walked in. His whole house was filled with antiques. He had this lamp I especially liked on the ground floor that was made out of a saxophone. And, there were makeshift sculptures of feathers, beads, ribbons, dried flowers, porcelain doll parts, and big glass orbs and jars filled with all of the above.

On the second floor there were clothes, hats, furs, and bolts of fabric everywhere. These things were all props; he could just grab something and use it in a photo.

He was doing a lot of fashion work when I was working for him; but if he had someone all to himself, and it wasn’t for a magazine, he would just play around and drape things over the shoulder and…zhoosh.

MB: Zhoosh?

DD: He always said that, “I like that, it’s zhooshy.”

MB: Tell me about David, the man, because every time I look at his photos I feel like I’m getting in his head.

[I take out the book 615 Jefferson Avenue.]

MB: After I look through this book, for example.

DD: Oh! David gave me a copy of this when I started. This and his other book, “Night and Day.” Let me just look through that.

[Derek points at the model on the cover.]

That’s Boyd in the bathroom on the second floor. You know he was in that movie with Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl. He had a small part in it, Boyd did.

MB: I never would have recognized him. He was also the scuba diver in the comedy, “Skeleton Twins.”

DD: I never met Boyd, but David was pretty enamored with him.

MB: So I’ve read, haha.

DD: Mad about the Boyd!

DD: David the man…well, he was scatterbrained like I said before. I say that affectionately. He was great to talk to. He was a great, great talent. I saw that firsthand, but also when I would archive his older work. I was fascinated looking through all of his work from the ‘70s and early ‘80s, everyone from Cookie Mueller to Jackie Curtis to Rene Ricard. Leg- ends now, who to him were just his friends. There were these beautiful photos, which I don’t think have been published, of Cookie in a red blouse with bright purple eye shadow sitting next to a window.

One thing we both had in common was that we came from places with strong accents. He came from Boston; I’m not sure if it’s Boston proper, but around there. So at one time he must have had that thick accent, but altered it decades ago, so he spoke with this mid-Atlantic inflection in this way that you couldn’t quite place where he was from. I did the same thing because I didn’t want to come to New York from Mississippi sounding like a country bumpkin, so that was an affectation we shared.

That was such a big part of his personality to me, his accent and his voice; his choice of words. I just loved the way he spoke. I loved his voice.

MB: He was definitely under-appreciated, at least at the time. I guess that’s kind of the question. What do you think his aspirations were?

DD: Well, he didn’t set out to do fashion stuff. David had been taking pictures for decades. He photographed friends. That was what he was accustomed to and when he was doing fashion a lot of stipulations came into it, business. He’d be doing a shoot and there’d be ten people there from the magazine, nagging him, telling him to be sure to get the shoes in every shot. He resented that. He really didn’t like having to work in those parame- ters, but he was able to execute it in such a way that it didn’t seem like he was compromising anything. But he hated it.

One time we were doing an edit. We had to send pictures to the magazine and there were these shoes…it was for the Rene Ricard thing, actually. They were these garish velvet slippers with dollar signs that he had to get in the picture. There were at least seven or eight different looks, but they kept putting Rene in the slippers again and again—they were so insistent. So Da- vid does his edits and there are no shots with the slippers included, so he said [sardonically], “Oh, we forgot the slippers.”

He didn’t like having to work around that stuff, but he managed. He liked it just to be him and his subject. He wasn’t the type that needed or want- ed extraneous people around him. He wanted to concentrate on the person in front of him. I think he struggled with that, or was at least a little perturbed when there were hoards of people around and it was a big to-do, all these clothes being hauled in, catering, and some ungodly call time.

MB: Yeah, I was reading this interview between David and Ryan McGinley in the back of 615 Jefferson Avenue, and Ryan asked him about fashion photography. David said when they asked him to shoot fashion, he was like, “They’re asking me to do what?”

“He was great to talk to. He was a great, great talent.
I saw that firsthand, but also when I would archive his older work.”

DD: It was Hedi Slimane who got him into it, I think. He shot something backstage for a Dior show in 2002, I think, and that’s what got the ball rolling with all the fashion stuff.

MB: He kind of just fell into it?

DD: Yeah. David loved fashion though, just not the business end of it.

MB: Yeah, I know… I’ve been in it. It can be very restricting.

DD: Yeah, people always telling you what to do.

[Derek opens 615 Jefferson Avenue and points to a model in the middle of the book.]

This is Jarrod. He lived in the house while I was there. It’s been described as a flophouse for male models, which it kind of was. Despite being a non-model, I wanted to move in there, David offered me one of the rooms, but I never did move in. I wish I had.

[Derek flips through some pages.]

This is the second floor; it’s a big white room. He used the two corners at the front end of the room a lot, next to two big windows.

MB: It’s amazing.

DD: He used to let me shoot there, in the white room. I always turned up at like two in the morning. After doing hair and make up, we’d get in a cab and go to his house. He was still awake and wandering around, so he didn’t seem to mind. He was very generous in that way. He helped out lots of his photographer friends.

MB: So, tell me about that portrait that you took of him because it’s amazing. I just love it.

DD: Thanks! I had just bought the Land Camera; it’s the kind of camera your dad would have used in the ‘60s to take snapshots. It’s nothing, you know, but I bought it and I wanted to see if it still worked. I left work one day to go get it and told David I wanted to test it. So I came back to the house and asked him to sit for me. He said, “Oh, you want to use me?” We went down to the second floor and he sat on the chaise lounge that was between the two windows, under a mirror, and it had a rug over the back of it.

DD: Sometimes you want to have the person wearing sunglasses or holding a cigarette and it might look like put on, but not with David, because that was sort of his default position, anyway. He misplaced his glasses sometimes, so he would just wear the sunglasses because they had prescription lenses.

He just sat there and smoked, and I took a few pictures. You can see the big black thing is cutting into the shot on the side – that’s the bellows – they were all crumpled. He just sat there for me for a minute and that was it. I didn’t think much of the photos, at the time, but now I’m so glad to have them.

MB: They turned out so beautifully. Did he see them?

DD: He did, he liked them. He said the exposure was perfect.

MB: The moment, too. He looks very much in his habitat.

DD: Smoking, serenely.

MB: You know, there aren’t that many pictures taken of him, or at least not on Google. I haven’t seen that many portraits of David himself.

DD: They’re out there. But yes, it’s hard sometimes to find pictures taken of photographers.

MB: Yeah, a lot of them are so reclusive.

DD: David was so handsome. Rakish. I always thought he was super handsome. That’s another reason why I wanted him to sit for me.

MB: In the book, Night and Day–

DD: There are several pictures of him in there.

Portrait of Derek DeWitt by Derek DeWitt and Grant Tippin

MB: Yeah, I wouldn’t recognize him. 

DD: Some of his friends from back then looked sort of like him.

MB: Yeah, that’s what I figured… there’s this one guy naked in the lake.

DD: That’s French Chris. David was in a movie called Underground U.S.A.- Patti Astor and Rene Ricard were in it. David played a hustler. He didn’t have a speaking part, I don’t think. He’s just standing on a corner, leaning against a light pole next to French Chris. He’s all in black and French Chris is all in white, if I remember correctly. I think he just did that one scene and then shot a lot of stuff on the set.

MB: How did David feel about digital coming from film?

DD: Well, when he started, film was all there was. It’s not necessarily that he was a film purist, that’s just what he was accustomed to. But, I suppose digital offers a better workflow for fashion photography. You have all those people there on set, and I guess, you’re under a lot of pressure, and you’re expected to just rattle it off, so digital is ideal.

MB: I try to show everyone that comes over 615 Jefferson Avenue.

[Derek flips through 615 Jefferson Avenue once more.]

DD: These photos weren’t part of a bigger shoot or anything – that’s all this is. He just had boys come over, or stay after a shoot. This was before my time, but I remember seeing all these clothes laying around. I helped clean out the basement once, he told me to go through the trunks and take any of the clothes I wanted. He would go to thrift stores, especially the Salva- tion Army – the Salvation Army right over here on Atlantic Avenue – and he would buy sheer things, or anything with sequins or tulle. He loved tutus. And he would put boys in them. I took all the fishnet tanks tops.

MB: Haha! Everything fishnet is mine!

DD: My time there was short, I guess. When I remember it, it seems like such a big chunk of my life. I guess being young, a year is a pretty signif- icant period. Oh, right! There were also the cats…that’s Jouvet. There was Jouvet and Giggles. Jouvet had a limp, deformed paw. She was kind of a handicapped cat. I loved Giggles.

To be honest, I think a lot of the fashion stuff was sort of disposable to him. I don’t think he really cared that much. It’s really a testament that maybe he didn’t care, and the photos are still so beautiful. It’s not that he didn’t enjoy it, but as I said, he kind of resented all the prodding from stylists and the people from the magazines… the clothes took precedence.

MB: That’s not what the pictures are about to him.

DD: No, of course not.

Polaroid of 615 Jefferson Avenue

MB: Yeah, I know, it’s a battle. That one shoot, the one with Ben Allen. I think Ben’s a really good model. I wonder, did David choose him for it? It seems like he would fit right into 615 Jefferson Avenue, or did that happen organically?

DD: I don’t think so. He would usually see photos of the models beforehand, but I don’t think he ever nixed anyone or asked for anyone specifically. The shoot with Ben Allen was for T Magazine, which comes with the New York Times occasionally. It was all knitwear and coats and we shot it in June or July. So, Ben’s a trooper, he must have been miserable.

MB: David cast most of the 615 Jefferson Avenue guys himself, right? It’s amazing, he had such a good eye for that. Were they all signed agency guys?

DD: Most of them are, almost all of them, I think. Can I have a French fry? Just a single French fry.

MB: Yeah, of course.

DD: This is what David would want, for me to limit myself to one. One time, I had pneumonia, and I was in the hospital for five days. I was on the phone with David while in the hospital and told him I had lost eight pounds because I couldn’t eat the food. When I came back, instead of asking how I was doing, he said, “You have lost some weight, it suits you.”

DD: It was funny! And, he was right, I did look better. I always tried to stay at that weight…to appease David.

DD: I wish I’d brought my old phone. It still has all his voicemails. In 2013, there was this really awful heatwave. I wanted to stay at the house and sleep in one of the bedrooms that had a window unit, because I didn’t have one. He left a voicemail saying, “Hey doll, if you want to stay here, you can. I know it must be hatefully hotat your apartment.” If he didn’t like something, it was, “hateful.” He would say, “It’s hatefully hot,” or you know, “It’s just hateful.” If he liked you, you were, “Doll.” He would say, “Hi, doll.” He was a sweetheart.

There was me, there was Ben, who had been his right hand for a long time. Ethan would come in sometimes, usually to help on shoots. Jarrod, a model, would help sometimes. It was just a mishmash. I liked that, it didn’t really seem all that delineated. There was no job description. If you were there, you could just pitch in and help; it was fun that way. He smoked like a freight train. Nowadays, even people who smoke avidly, won’t smoke in their apartment, you know. They’ll lean out a window or go outside. Not David. We all smoked, but then, those fashion people would be there and be worried that the clothes would smell like cigarettes by the end of the day, because, I guess, they had to send them back.

But, David always smoked while he was shooting, with that Blue Willow looking plate full of cigarette butts at his feet. He smoked Newports.

My work was varied. Sometimes, there was a shoot, sometimes, I’d be on the computer, sometimes, I’d run errands. If there was nothing else happening, I would be picking things up from the city, or he would ask me to run down to buy ginger ale and Newports. He liked his ginger ale.

MB: Was he keen on using the computer and all the digital stuff?

DD: Not at all. One time, these two guys who owned a gallery came over, and he was supposed to be showing them stuff on the computer. It was an older picture that they wanted for a show, or something. He had me at the computer because he couldn’t find it. He comes over and says [emphati- cally], “I think it’s in the folder called, ‘Old Crap.’” He didn’t put on airs for the gallerists.

MB: Ha! What do you now? Do you still work in photography?

DD: I work for an architect now. Still taking pictures. I have some projects in the works. That’s all, really.

DD: Oh, also, David was always rearranging the furniture. He was one of those people who constantly rearranges furniture, and with the amount of furniture at 615, he stayed pretty busy zhooshing. If I’m not mistaken, the old woman who used to own the house, rented out rooms to people, and one of the tenants beat or stabbed her to death, in what David referred to as the front parlor. Before he lived at 615, he lived in a house across the street, so I think he was there when the murder happened, or he moved there soon after and heard all about it.

[Derek points at the book as cigarette ash drops on the cover of 615 Jefferson Avenue.]

Sometimes, when I was done for the day, I would go down to say good-bye to David and end up staying for a couple of hours, talking. He wasn’t a big drinker when I knew him, but he would make us both drinks, and we’d sit and talk. I always liked to pick his brain. We talked about Dynasty. He used to watch Dynasty. A lot of my friends are older gay men and they don’t like to revisit the ‘80s, for obvious reasons. But David just loved Dynasty. We would talk about all the storylines. Joan Collins. Shoulder pads. Cat fights.

We talked about old movie stars. It could be something really esoteric and we would both be totally on the same page. He knew exactly what I was talking about when I mentioned how Barbara Stanwyck had thin lips in the ‘30s and started drawing them in really big in the ‘40s. He talked about how he loved all of Adrian’s costume designs for MGM movies in the ‘30s, but that he had seen some of them in an exhibit once, and they looked cheap in person. He would play Marlene Dietrich’s music a lot. He had all these CDs…compilations of Ethel Waters or Edith Piaf. He would play their music.

MB: Oh, on records?

“When I remember it, it seems like such a big chunk of my life. I guess being young, a year is a pretty significant period.”

DD: Well, he had lots of records, but no, he would play the CDs. Barbra Streisand too, sometimes.

MB: Really? Haha.

DD: Oh, yeah, he liked Barbra. 

MB: My dad loves her too! 

DD: Is your dad gay?

MB: No, haha!

DD: Not as far as you know. 

DD: My dad and I…I was like 4 years old. We’d be driving around in his pickup truck. He’s wearing a baseball cap…it looks very straight, but inside the truck we were listening to Cher’s album, Believe.

MB: Oh, I love that album. 

DD: I had an inkling even then. May- be, we both have latent homosexual fathers.

MB: That would make things interesting!

DD: David had several brothers, I think. One of whom looked kind of like him. I archived a lot of the negatives and there were some portraits he did of his brother in 1983. He was cute. David was pretty close to his mother, Irma and one brother, but I think that was it as far as family.

MB: Was he really into gay culture, or the scene in New York at all?

DD: No, it was so different where he was coming from. If you mean the current scene, if there even is one worth investigating, he didn’t go out a lot, no. He told me one of the great things about the ‘70s in New York was that they would go to Studio 54 and then later go down- town and bar hop until dawn. Like at the more underground sort of spots, such as the Mudd Club. Seeing both scenes in the space of one night—the “uptown, low down,” you see, that was the New York I moved here expecting. I wasn’t ready for strollers and frat boys; you know—I was expecting the New York that David had experienced.

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