DPP Home Profiles Larry Armstrong: A Beginner’s Mind

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Larry Armstrong: A Beginner’s Mind

Former L.A. Times Director Of Photography Larry Armstrong guided the newspaper through technological upheaval and radical, fundamental changes in photojournalism

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Armstrong is a strong believer in conceptual integration, helping to bring together writers, line editors and photographers to develop story ideas and solve problems. The world of photojournalism has changed considerably since he started out. The rise of digital photography and the decline of the newspaper industry have made it a challenging time for editorial photographers. Above: British soldiers on patrol in a Catholic neighborhood in Belfast, Northern Ireland, during the summer of 1981.
DPP: Just like a doctor should have a good bedside manner, a photographer has to have people skills.

Armstrong: In all the decent portraits I’ve done, something happens where it’s like music. There’s this rhythm, a connection between you and the person. It’s like magic. They know when to look at me, when to look away, and I’m right on it. I’m right on the expression, and when it’s all over, I feel spent. I got the same feeling when I used to play music with other people. I think you have to have an engaging personality to take strong portraits.

DPP: This extends far beyond Hollywood and celebrity portraiture. Your image of a brother and sister in Northern Ireland and the stunning portrait of an Ethiopian girl are good examples of that.

Armstrong: The Ethiopian child holding a cup at the feeding center had eyes that were swollen from malnutrition. The picture of the boy with his little sister was in Falls Road not long after the battles that gutted a lot of the buildings there. I was with a Sinn Féin guy, and these two children were playing with a broken buggy. The brother and sister had been laughing and playing. When I said I would like to take a picture, the boy said, “Wait a minute,” and put his arm around his little sister in a very protective way. I think that pose and the scowl on his face says volumes about children in war zones.

Look at the late Galen Rowell. Here was a guy who had a passion for mountaineering, and photography became a part of that. He got images that no one else could get. My mantra for anyone who wants to be a photographer these days is: “You’ve got to make it different.”

Funeral in El Salvador. Widow with child walks behind the casket of her husband, who was killed by rebels the night before.
DPP: You’re no stranger to photographing in areas of conflict and tension, as well as dealing with other photographers who are in and out of hostile environments here and abroad. How do you keep yourself in check emotionally?

Armstrong: When I was a young photographer, I cut my teeth covering radicals at demonstrations out there with cops and everybody else, and it was getting real violent. I could push back real hard. When they put me on the assignment desk and a photographer would come in with that attitude and pushed my buttons, they got nothing but a fight back. My study of Aikido has taught me how to not fight—how to get my way and let people feel like they got their way. It’s been invaluable. The principle of Aikido is that you don’t crash against someone else’s energy. You neutralize it, blend with it and reroute it. If you take that physical concept and make a metaphysical concept out of it, you’d be surprised what happens.


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