Interview with Bill Armstrong

Jun 3, 2013 3:26PM

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. Here, Aperture speaks with Armstrong on the occasion of his spring 2013 exhibition of photography at ClampArt in New York City.

Aperture: Film Noir was 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 …

AperturePerhaps 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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