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Interview with Bill Armstrong

For more than fifteen years, the New York–based photographer Bill Armstrong has been working on his Infinity series, which entails photographing handmade collages of printed source material with his camera’s focus ring set to infinity. His latest exhibition, Film Noir, is on view at ClampArt in New York through April 6. In addition, Armstrong appears tonight at Aperture Gallery in conversation with W. M. Hunt on the subject of “Thinking in Color.” —The Editors

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Bill Armstrong, Untitled (Film Noir #1433), 2012. Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York, and HackelBury Fine Art, London.

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Bill Armstrong, Untitled (Film Noir #1414), 2011. Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York, and HackelBury Fine Art, London.

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Bill Armstrong, Untitled (Film Noir #1435), 2012. Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York, and HackelBury Fine Art, London.

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Bill Armstrong, Apparition #909, 2005. Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York, and HackelBury Fine Art, London.

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Bill Armstrong, Apparition #906, 2005. Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York, and HackelBury Fine Art, London.

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Bill Armstrong, Figure #30, 2000. Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York, and HackelBury Fine Art, London.

Aperture: This is your fourth exhibition at ClampArt. Were a viewer to try and trace the arc of these shows’ development, he or she might suggest that your source material and themes have become decidedly more contemporary. Earlier exhibitions involved images of Roman sculpture or Renaissance-era master drawings. This show, while referencing the classic films of the 1940s and ‘50s, seems to use contemporary source material. (Is that Michelle Obama we see in one image?) How do you aim to balance universal, timeless concerns with references to things—films noir, today’s advertising and stock imagery—that might be in the living memory of some viewers?

Bill Armstrong: I see what you are saying about an apparent arc from the past to the contemporary in the source material of my shows at ClampArt, but over entire the course of the Infinity series, the path is more wayward; in fact, the first portfolio, Early Figures, is made the same way as Film Noir. I felt it had been so long since I started the series that it made sense to circle back.

The idea of the Film Noir project is to revisit in color the themes of the classic black-and-white films of the 1940s and ’50s. The solitary figures contemplating the unknown reference the ethical and philosophical dilemmas laid out in those stories. However, the dark, mysterious images remain unresolved to hint at the increased uncertainties of the contemporary viewpoint.

I think of the film-noir subjects of loneliness, alienation, and the existentialist dilemma as universal themes that fit right into the overall trajectory of my work. I’m always trying to bite into the big themes: death, love, redemption, freedom, spirituality. I don’t have the exact quote, but Jack Pierson once said something like, “If it’s not about lonely, it’s not art.” Even though that’s apocryphal, I think the fact that we are alone is a major theme today, as much as faith and hope were in the Renaissance, or mortality was to the Romans. In a way I see all these themes as asking the same question. What is the meaning of it all? Does it matter what we do?

And by the way, I’m happy that many people read the image on the exhibition invitation as Michelle Obama—all the better—but it’s not her. It’s actually a figure from a Garry Winogrand photograph! An important aspect of blurring is that, by erasing individual features, I push the viewer to supply his/her own interpretation. I’m interested in this increased subjectivity: that the psychology and imagination of the viewer comes in to play. In many ways my work is about perception, how we try to resolve images but can’t, and how in that moment of confusion, when we are unsure of what we are seeing, the rational mind is derailed and we are freed to respond on a more subconscious level. I can’t be sure what it all means exactly, but I think a lot of people are very comfortable with the idea of Michelle Obama, and putting her into the picture may represent a desire for safety, for the known in an uncertain world. But perhaps you’d have a different explanation …

Aperture: Perhaps the fact that many people see Michelle Obama in the photograph included in this show is indicative of a “desire for the known,” as you aptly put it. Now that you’ve been at work on the Infinity series for a decade and a half, have you found viewers generally able to balance this desire for stability and familiarity with your own interest in pushing the meaning of the images out into more abstract, universal “big themes”? A related question: Given the methdological constraint of always setting the focus ring to infinity, what techniques have you developed over the years for varying the meaning conveyed by your pictures? I imagine it has something to do with color theory …

BA: For an artist like myself, who has a singular style, the challenge is always to keep a thread of familiarity connecting the bodies of work while at the same time spinning an expanding web in which each new portfolio is fresh enough to grab attention.

There are constraints to my blurred process—the images can’t be sharp, of course—but the range of subjects I can work with is broad. My overall goal of creating an ephemeral, spirit double for the real world is in some ways an endless quest, and each step along the way intersects with reality somewhat differently. The subject matter establishes the wide parameters of the meanings, but, yes, I use hues and values of color to fine-tune the emotional range of the individual images. My process is quite gestural: I mix and match colors, foregrounds, and backgrounds quickly and shoot rapidly. Sometimes it’s almost trancelike and depends on chance, but at the same time I’m fully aware of the principles of the contrast and harmony of colors.

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Bill Armstrong, Untitled (Film Noir #1431), 2011. Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York, and HackelBury Fine Art, London.

Aperture: I wouldn’t have expected your process to be described as “gestural,” given the precision of the effects achieved by your individual prints. It must require rigorous editing. Your work is featured on the cover of the recent Aperture book The Edge of Vision. That book is about abstraction in photography, a topic that has been very prominent in recent conversations about the medium. Are these conversations—around the work of such photographers as Walead Beshty, Liz Deschenes, Mariah Robertson, Michele Abeles, and others who manipulate their materials—of interest to you?

BA: I mention the “gestural” aspect of my work because I often find that if I work with a palette of colors one day, the next day those colors won’t interest me. There’s a subconscious aspect driving the process—the work is expressing some sensitivity or mood that I’m not aware of—and that seems important.

Of course, the printing requires care and precision. I’m still making my own prints in the color darkroom, and I do think the prints in the ClampArt show jump off the wall, if I say so myself. Brian Clamp is a wizard with lighting, and that makes a big difference. I know some people think working in the darkroom is a bit pathetic these days, but I’m proud of those prints!

I’m thrilled that there’s a new interest in abstract photography. I’ve always thought of the lens as a paintbrush for making creative images. Over the years, I’ve often felt out of step with my peers: in the beginning people even told me color was for commercial work and black and white was for art! Luckily I didn’t listen.

I love smart, original, and visually compelling work: Mariah Robertson and Walead Beshty’s virtuoso photograms blow me away. How about Ellen Carey’s crumpled series; do you know those? They make me want to work without a camera—it’s so pure and direct. I show the mixed-media artists, Sarah Anne Johnson and Sam Falls, in my class, as well the rest of the Higher Pictures crew: Artie Vierkant, Jessica Eaton, Letha Wilson. I’m also interested in the idea of the printer being the medium. Wade Guyton, Gerhard Richter, and John Baldessari all had big shows last year, making inkjet prints without using a camera. I bet we’ll see more of that.

I’ve been making some abstract videos myself. I had an exhibition of them in 2011 at the Cornell Museum of Art. I’d love to make more, I’ve got lots of ideas, but it’s hard to find the time. Lately, I’ve been making some abstract images in the subway with a camera phone. Maybe they will see the light of day sometime—I’m not sure yet.

Aperture: Unlike some iterations of your Infinity series, the subjects in Film Noir are all human, are all seen full-length, and are often in outdoor locations. Can you speak about the decisions that led to these being the works’ defining characteristics?

BA: I mentioned before that Film Noir represents circling back to my first portfolio in the Infinity series which was in the style of horizontal “environmental portraits.” I always think in terms of portfolios, so once I’ve got an idea the variations tend to stay within a fairly close range.

I’m not sure how I started this series, but there’s a back story which brings in the subconscious again—that seems to be my theme right now. I was in a show at Robischon Gallery in Denver with Halim Al-Karim a few years ago. He’s an Iraqi refugee and dissident who also uses blur. His work is political and a powerful metaphor for his experience. On the airplane back from the opening, I wondered how I might create work that would reflect personal experience, the way he did. I recalled how I was halfway through my Apparition series before I realized I was making photographs of ghosts of old men and that my father had just died. I consider Apparition my most powerful work and believe that fact that the motivation was subconscious is a key to its power, its truth. I thought about how it might be worthwhile to make work about my mother’s death, but I never came up with any ideas and when I got home I soon forgot about it.

A short while later I began shooting figures in the landscape, in the style of my early work. As I went along the images kept getting darker and more mysterious, and I gradually developed the idea of having the portfolio relate to the Film Noir themes. As well as the films the writers Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett were very important to me as I came of age, and so, too, were Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre—I lump them together in my mind.

As with Apparition, it wasn’t until I was well into the project that it dawned on me that this was it—this was the work about my mother’s death that I had imagined on the airplane. My mother committed suicide when I was fourteen, and as one can imagine it turned my life upside down. I realized these dark images of solitary figures were self-portraits in a way, and represented the ideas and feelings I carried through adolescence into adulthood—the period when I was interested in film noir and existentialism. For many years I felt that I was alone, that my universe was darker and less defined than my peers, and that it existed somewhat in parallel to conventional reality—that truth and meaning were obscured, perhaps unattainable.

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Bill Armstrong, Figure #70, 2003. Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York, and HackelBury Fine Art, London.

Some people believe that the power behind art is communicated through the work if the work is true, that the viewer feels that power and internalizes it according to his or her own needs and consciousness. If that’s the case, then there’s no point in artists explaining themselves too much. In some ways I agree with this idea; at the same time, however, I often find that if I like art, I like it even better when I learn more about it. It’s a fine line. I doubt I’d write about this in my artist’s statement, but in an interview I feel it’s a bit different, more personal and informal. And of course it is important to me and doesn’t feel it should be a secret—it was well over forty years ago that my mother took her own life, yet the power of that event still exists within me. If I can transform any of that power into imagery that others can relate to, well, that seems like a good thing.

Aperture: Given your interest in spirituality and universality, do you have any religious beliefs or belief in God?

BA: Spirit was the title of my first show at ClampArt, and it referred to a whole range of ideas about spirits: nineteenth-century ghost photography, evil spirits of African masks, Bhuddism, Kandinsky. A philosophy professor I met at the opening suggested that my work was not really about spirituality but about spiritism. That was his word for the idea that I investigate a lot of different aspects of “spirit.” I think he was right.

I had an interesting experience the other day. Bill Hunt and I were talking about the spiritual aspects of blue. He asked me if I believed in God and when I hesitated, he said, “You believe in the subconscious.” It occurred to me that belief in the subconscious might be another way of saying God is within you. I had never thought of that before. I guess I’m still learning.