No matter how the public eye perceives him, Hunter Armistead considers himself a performer first and photographer second. On a sunny Friday afternoon, the Nashville native spoke candidly about the light and dark sides of Southern culture and the advantages and disadvantages of being born to an aristocratic family. Today, the multifaceted artist, who has alternated between careers, cities and characters, simply tries to be in the moment. Being present ensures there will be something significant in every move he makes. The less he analyzes, the more he thrives. Everything Armistead has gone through is imbedded in everything that he does.
You are a dancer, musician, performance and visual artist. How did you get to be such a creative individual?
(Laughs) Well, first off thank you. I actually have a very convoluted path. Until age 32, I didn’t consider myself an artist at all. Prior to that, I worked in advertising and as a stock and insurance broker. In between, I attended film and business school. My real creative awakening came my senior year of college when I took a jazz dance class. It was the first time I felt completely free to be me. I was able to turn off what I knew and let my body naturally respond. Of course, my favorite photography series I ever created was about dancers. I am fascinated by their hand postures, used as a means of expression.
Why that particular body part?
Hands are an extension of your heart chakra, which is why the way we are touched and touch is so meaningful.
Agreed. How did photography come onto your radar?
I learned that I should be a photographer by taking one of those career tests. Isn’t that ridiculous? Yet, it’s true. However, I hated the darkroom, which turned me off to the craft for a few years. It was too solitary, technical and detail-oriented. I am a social creature who gets energized from people. I need to be around others in order to feel inspired.
What makes you tick?
I think, like most artists, I was born out of a trying childhood—trauma, difficulty and a real urge to be understood. The normal confines of human society didn’t give me what I needed to express my creative energy. Art is my means of fitting in.
Tell me about your family and upbringing.
My mother, Clare Armistead, is a local icon—recipient of the Fashion Icon Award, founder of the Ballet Ball, second chairman of the Swan Ball and a timeless beauty. She is a major giver and very well respected. By virtue of birth, I’ve always been well-received by her and my late father’s friends—almost to a humbling point. However, I never really felt like I completely fit in to society. I could never really play the part. Even when they cheered me on, I always felt separate from the crowd. I feel much more comfortable with that now.
Yet you, ironically, love photographing parties today.
As a photographer, I really enjoy parachuting into a situation. It’s why I am frequently hired to shoot balls and society events. As a performer, I can connect with large amounts of people. It’s experiencing all sides of humanity that really gets me going.
What’s one of the best experiences you’ve ever had as a photographer?
For a few years, I had a studio in the Arcade and decided, one night, to shoot 126 people in three hours. It was one of the most magical nights of my life because it taught me that you can never guess what kind of energy you’re going to get from someone. The camera opens up different facets of people’s personalities. From this experience, I got the idea for my Lower Broadway book, The Nashville 100, which was a far greater challenge. On a street like that, every moment is different. You have to think about weather, traffic, timing and truckloads of tourists. I was at the mercy of the elements. Around that time, I realized my favorite part of the shooting process is making my subjects feel good. While it sounds corny, that is so gratifying.
How do you get yourself in the zone?
Just like anything, I learned how to focus by doing it a zillion times. The best compliment I ever received was that my images were “very sympathetic,” which I took as “taken with a lot of care.” I try to capture my subjects where they are, right then and there. That’s the secret to authenticity. A lot of it comes from preparing myself, which means getting into a calm mental state, before the shoot.
What’s your secret to staying so creative?
I believe we are all creatures of context, so I try to be around as many inspired people as possible. Everyone needs their own cabinet of trusted intellectuals, artists or thinkers who feel comfortable sharing their experiences with you—and vice versa. It’s why I have a hard time with the way criticism is viewed in the South. It’s oftentimes seen as a direct attack on someone’s character, whereas in Europe, people are much more matter-of-fact. The question is more about “can you support why you made that choice?” I actually crave when people call bullshit on me. You can’t become a better artist if you never get critiqued.
What was the moment when you decided, screw it. I gotta do me—whether other people like it or not!
While I’ve always been bold, it was a vocal teacher who really helped me come into my own. I had covertly wished to sing since I was a very little boy. Yet, I didn’t have confidence in my looks or singing. That changed when I met my voice teacher, Rene Grant-Williams, as a balding, 32-year-old stock broker. At the end of our first lesson she asked, “If you had all the time, money and talent in the world, what would you do in this lifetime?” to which I responded, “I’d be the biggest rock star in the United States.” Instead of laughing at me, she said, “Anything is possible.” After that, I decided to never edit my impulses. The more me I was, the more in sync with the universe I felt. That’s when the good stuff started happening.