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A Closer Look -- Night and Day

Night and Day by David Armstrong

The passing of time imparts a certain magic on photography, which is especially true of the new book from David Armstrong published by Morel. Taken in New York in 1979, the images depict vibrant, creative youth, Armstrong and his friends at the short-lived but influential Mudd Club and on frequent trips to Cape Cod. He had taken images as an experiment more than anything else; continuing to pursue his portraiture, his long-time friend Nan Goldin encouraged him to carry around a 35mm camera, which he did for about nine months. It was the first time he'd ever shot in color. At the time Armstrong decided not to show the work because of the obvious similarities to Goldin, and while there are plenty of similarities to be seen, it's also clear that these images were made with a very different eye. Despite the highly saturated Kodachrome slide film and snapshot style, there is a visible through-line to the portraiture Armstrong has become known for; these photographs seem principally concerned with beauty.

from Night and Day by David Armstrong
from Night and Day by David Armstrong
In the many write ups and blurbs on this book and its corresponding show, certain terms repeat. Timeless is a big one; indeed, the images somehow look solidly from 1979, but also no time at all -- partially because of the '50s and '60s clothes that so many were wearing, partially because even today these styles read as cool. Coolness is a big factor here. Armstrong's circle included a number of people who would go on to big things -- another frequently mentioned item. I have to admit, on my first page through, a few faces were familiar, but I didn't recognize a single one of them. I was too busy admiring the beauty of what Armstrong captured, how oddly perfect everything seemed to be, young, frenzied, free.  Time has also made these images more remarkable by letting us see into the future, recognizing the faces that will become famous, knowing the tragedy of drug addiction and AIDS that is right around the corner -- images from the edge of a paradigm shift, from an iconic time in New York.

from Night and Day by David Armstrong
from Night and Day by David Armstrong
The book has the intimate feel of a photo album, or perhaps a slide show. It is wonderfully designed, the boards covered in a shiny dark blue cloth that looks like it may have been apparel fabric in a former life -- stretch pants, a light jacket -- definitely something from the seventies. Poet (and photographic subject) Rene Ricard lends his handwriting to the cover, as well as a poem written during the year the images were taken that is strikingly self-aware of the fragility of this kind of youthful existence, which for me, encapsulates both the joy and pathos of the photographs. The book ends with a conversation between Armstrong and fellow photographer Jack Pierson that reminisces about the days and people in the photographs, but moves on to engage Armstrong as an artist who has been working for thirty years. Several online publications have published interviews with Armstrong and many more have write ups. I've linked to the best of them here, but don't let the name-dropping spoil you -- enjoy this book without looking out for the famous faces. -- Sarah Bradley

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