v4.6 / Falling through History with Bill Armstrong

“If the doors of perception were cleansed,” wrote the poet William Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” A bit of a mixed metaphor there, but the gist is clear. While infinity may be somewhat commonplace across the cosmos (I’m no physicist, but isn’t that what a singularity suggests?), its immensity isn’t quite vivid enough to see through the greater darkness of the cave, which is what? consciousness? imagination? time? New York-based photographer Bill Armstrong, never content with looking through chinks, has been widening these stony apertures for over two decades now. His Infinity series draws from histories of Eastern and Western art, obscuring what makes them temporally distinct, and in many cases, transfiguring them with color. In the following interview with Od Review, Armstrong discusses his latest addition to the series: an Icarian sequence of images called “Falling through History.”—CB

Interview with Bill Armstrong

Collier Brown: Hi Bill, thanks so much for chatting with Od this week. So glad to have you and very excited to hear to about your new “Falling through History” sequence. Before we get there, would you mind telling us a little about yourself: where you’re from and what led you to photography?

Bill Armstrong: Let me just start by saying thank you for inviting me to be interviewed. I really like your magazine and am flattered to be published in it.

I grew up in Concord, Massachusetts, home to the American Transcendentalist movement as well as the site of the first battle of the American Revolution. So perhaps it’s not surprising in retrospect that I make work that has a transcendental quality and that I challenge the rules of photography.

I had always wanted to be a writer. The problem was I wanted to be a writer, I didn’t actually write very much.

I bought a camera for a trip to South America in the summer of 1975— not everyone had a camera in those days. A friend, Roger Farrington, who was a good photographer, gave me a crash course: “Underexpose Kodachrome slide film,” “Be aware of the magic hour,” etc. I liked the results from that trip and felt I had found my medium. I was studying art history in college at the time. I don’t think most photographers study painting before they use a camera, that also may explain why my approach to photography is a bit unusual.

After Robert Doisneau_The Fall
After Robert Doisneau's "The Fall" © Bill Armstrong

CB: The Transcendentalism makes perfect sense, especially with Emerson’s and Thoreau’s interests in Eastern philosophy. For a number of years now, you’ve been working on a large collection of images called the Infinity series, some of which nods toward Eastern art and thought. Would you mind giving us a sense of your motivations behind the Infinity photographs?

BA: Infinity is about time and mystery, but there are other aspects to its meaning in the work. I started out shooting with the camera lens set at infinity, the setting for distance and maximum depth of field, and yet I was shooting close up. It was this reversal that subverted the documentary expectation of photography and allowed me to enter this mysterious, ephemeral world. So originally, I called it the Infinity series because of the camera setting as well as because there was a sense of boundlessness to the images. As the series progressed, I used different cameras and lenses and the infinity setting was not always used. In fact newer lenses don’t even have it. The more recent portfolios use diffusion filters and camera movement instead of blur to achieve their “look,” but I still see them as part of the Infinity series.

CB: Could you tell us a bit more about your process?

BA: Sure, maybe we got a bit ahead of ourselves. I make collages from found or appropriated images. Then I photograph, or re-photograph them, extremely out of focus. The blurring makes the edges within the collages disappear, so the photographs appear to be seamless, integrated images. This allows me to create a world where the identity of the figures is obscured and the sense of place becomes mysterious.

After Charles Ray_Plank Piece
After Charles Ray’s “Plank Piece II” © Bill Armstrong

CB: The Infinity series is composed of smaller sequences of images: “Partial Appearances,” “Mandalas,” “Apparition,” “Buddha,” and the images we’ve chosen for this feature that come from “Falling through History.” How do you think about these varying sequences? Do you see them as variations on a theme? A sort of cross-cultural discourse on time or art? Or maybe an erasure of that discourse?

BA: Over time I have been gradually building what I think of as a parallel universe that is meant to represent a dematerialized, ephemeral version of culture and history as it explores different religions, periods of art history and philosophies. For example, the “Mandalas” refer to Buddhist thought, but also to Plato’s Theory of Forms. The “Renaissance” series is about a Dantean Heaven and Hell, and the “Film Noir” work refers to existentialism.

But so far, I haven’t found that critics or viewers have necessarily seen the diverse portfolios as part of a whole: that it is really one —that’s another aspect of the concept of Infinity.

After Hieronymus Bosch_Last Judgement
After Heironymus Bosch's “Last Judgement” © Bill Armstrong

CB: That’s interesting. So by blurring the figures just enough to obscure their identities, the pictures really become part of a more universal narrative of humanity and its relationship to time. It’s not loss, it’s connection, right? I see this approach at its strongest in the “Falling through History” sequence. It’s as if the work wants to forget the past and to remember it at the same time—which seems to me a very human paradox. What does “falling” mean to you in these images?

BA: I think this question approaches one of the most important aspects of the work, but perhaps in a slightly different way. Many people think the figurative images are made in the studio with gels or something—they are tethered to the belief that photography is of the real. Yet, I think, deep down, we all doubt the photograph’s representations of reality. I think that uncertainty, visual confusion, makes the viewer open to broader emotional responses, gives the images power over the heart rather than the brain. David Levinthal said this very well, I can’t remember his exact words, but it is the idea that we can believe something is real while at the same time knowing it is illusory, and that the experience of visual confusion, when the psyche is momentarily derailed, is what frees us to respond emotionally.

I suppose the same is true with time, that putting time (past and present) into question, mixing memory and dream with waking present is a door to a different perception and perhaps a different set of feelings. I’d consider the work successful if it does that for you!

As far as the relationship to the past goes, I take falling figures from the past—from the history of art—and try to connect them in a way that reveals falling as an ongoing aspect of human consciousness where past and present merge. There’s a more formal discussion of this in my artist statement.

After Luca Giordano_The Fall of the Rebel Angels
After Luca Giordano’s “The Fall of the Rebel Angels” © Bill Armstrong

CB: Do you have a favorite image in “Falling through History”? Mine is your adaptation of Aaron Siskind’s “The Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation,” and I think it’s because of the color. When I look at those black and white images by Siskind, I feel color. I don’t know why. I think it’s the freedom of the body, a peak exhilaration. It just wakens a kind of synesthesia in the viewer.

BA: “After Giorgio de Chirico, The Fall of Phaeton,” currently in a group exhibition called the Edge Effect at the Katonah Museum, would be my favorite because I received a complimentary email about it from someone who had seen the show, and, in the course of an email exchange, he confided that he felt that his career and business were falling, and so he related personally to the image for that reason. I was touched by the fact that someone had a personal, emotional response to my work—that’s what it’s all about, right? a human connection—but artists work alone, in isolation, so it doesn’t happen often.

I am interested in the idea that “Falling through History” is a metaphor for the falling of the canon of art history. Recently, the hierarchy of art history has been in free fall. The exalted position of artists, that had once seemed fixed, has been upended, and much needed space has opened for neglected or overlooked artists. As much as this seems positive and necessary, it’s also disconcerting to see once-revered artists fall off their pedestals.

Perhaps the series is about aging as well. I think there is always a subconscious motivation for art if it’s good or true—and I am not getting any younger. When we spoke the other day, you mentioned “Musée des Beaux Arts,” W.H. Auden’s poem about Brueghel’s unusual “Fall of Icarus” painting, in which Icarus is just a tiny blip on the horizon rather than a central figure. The poem ends like this:

                                       … the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Looking at that poem brought me to William Carlos Williams’ version “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”:

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

Perhaps “Falling through History” can be seen as a metaphor for what many artists fear as they grow older—that they will be forgotten, fall into the void “with a splash quite unnoticed” as time passes, styles change, and the march of history passes on.

I recently heard a piece on NPR about Sidney Bechet, the Dixieland jazz saxophonist. At some point in his life, he realized that younger people were interested in more modern forms than the traditional jazz he played. He came to accept that perhaps his time had passed, that he could let go of his desire to play out and settle down to teach and enjoy his later years. It was reassuring that, as hard as he had worked to further his career, he could accept a different role—a soft landing, if you will.

The piece went on to say that, much later, in the 1950’s, Bechet moved to France where his career skyrocketed, and he enjoyed fabulous success in his old age. We should all be so lucky!

Maybe I should start working on images about the Phoenix—rising instead of falling (*laughs*).

After Giorgio de Chirico_Fall of Phaeton
After Giorgio de Chirico’s “Fall of Phaeton” © Bill Armstrong

Feature Image: After Aaron Siskind, The Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation © Bill Armstrong