THE NEW DAVID ARMSTRONG
Photographer Michael Mayren delves into the subtleties of Masculinity
by Julia Howe
On October 25 2014, the world lost David Armstrong. We pay tribute to Armstrong and look at emerging photographer Michael Mayren as his successor due to his documentary style, confrontation of traditional masculinity and unique process.
Widely known for his photography of subcultures and social outsiders from New York throughout the late 70's and '80s, Armstrong avidly documented the models, drag queens, addicts of the New York drag and gay scenes. The promiscuous, manic Manhattan clubs is encapsulated in 'Night and Day’ possesses the signature stillness and intimacy ever present in his work. Members of ‘the Boston School’, he and Nan Goldin heavily influenced each other, with contrasting yet complimentary styles. After his death Nan told an interviewer 'we were sort of married for a while'.
‘Smoke and Mirrors, From Fashion to Portrait’, was a 2009 softly romanticised exhibition, evocative of classical paintings. Photographer Ryan McGinley describes his style with reverence to the NY Times, ‘It was almost like Vermeer, using only sunlight to illuminate uni-directionally.’ He snapped both friends and lovers, immortalising them in raw natural light, distanced and sublime. Not caring for the muscular, mainstream ideal, Armstrong approached the male form from a sensitive, semi-erotic angle.
Later, he shot campaigns for the likes of Hedi Slimane, Burberry and Rodarte, Purple, Wonderland and Vogue Hommes. However, he was not the archetypal fashion photographer, used for exclusively for editorials, telling the NY Times, “Brands want something a bit more sanitized, and they're not going to get that from me.” His legacy still echoes throughout the fashion world, reflected in the increasing emphasis on androgynous beauty.
Armstrong, who was renowned for combining emotionally charged documentary style portraits seamlessly with his fashion work, has influenced many contemporary photographers. The essence of his work is captured by a young photographer from Bolton, Michael Mayren. Exploring masculinity, Mayren unravels the grey areas surrounding our conception of strength, aggression and manhood. Mayren’s documentary style photography captures thought provoking images of young male boxers, balancing the juxtaposed elements of strength and sensitivity. Due to his use of natural light, at first glance the images appear to be simplistic, but on further examination the subtlety is commanding. Young, delicate faces staring out dolefully, marred by bruises and blood, making for a powerful portrait.
His subjects are the people he familiarises with, as he puts it, ‘You’ve just got to be on a level with someone’. Having grown up in the North, around Manchester, he says this weighs heavily on his photographic style and inspiration. He enjoys the more unique appearance, in comparison with London’s often very style conscious boys. With the series CHAV exploring the generalization of this ‘negative’ term, he photographs young, working class men struggling to achieve their personal ideal of success and status. Comparably, Armstrong described the emotional aim of his images was to evoke 'desire and despair'.
In his series ‘Young Fathers’, Mayren continues in the same vein through the suggestive subjects he uses - again rough looking young men, tattooed and strong with subtle glimmers of vulnerability and softness in their youthful eyes, exaggerated by the presence of their young children. He achieves a way of showing true intimacy whilst maintaining the harsh edge of reality that undercuts all of his work, giving his images a voyeuristic and deeply personal atmosphere. It could also be seen as an expansion on the work of Larry Clark, who asked the similar questions within his work.
Mayren became involved in fashion after being discovered by Nicola Formichetti whilst in New York. He envisioned a massive brand image shake up of Diesel, and the job went straight to Mayren. Both Formichetti and Michael both champion new, young creatives- a rare thing in the fashion business. Early influences included his mother’s interest in photography, and cult magazine The Face during his teenage years. He is systematic about keeping a documentary element involved in his fashion portfolios.
Mayren does not adhere to standard photographic practice, using film for his fashion work. He maintains that in order to achieve the naturalistic quality of his work there must not be too many people involved; this way there can be a connection between himself and the subject. In just a few short years, Mayren has gained fast-track recognition, beginning his journey in a town outside of Manchester, to having the dizzying responsibility of helping to reform the image of a major international fashion brand, with the #DieselREBOOT campaign. Soulful eyes stare out at us from the images of both artists in an almost identical manner, washing a longing, melancholic feeling over the viewer, so tangible is the energy within. For Mayren, this is just the beginning.