Will Armstrong grew up in his father’s photography studio, learning the craft as a boy. From his father’s professional placement, he knew and was known by the older eminences in the Professional Photographers Association of America from an early age. After the standard training in portraiture, he gravitated toward theatrical work in the 1890s working as chief cameraman for Charles F. Conly’s Studio.
Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, Armstrong went independent and became the most artistic of Boston’s celebrity photographers. Influenced by the aesthetics of certain Gilded Age idealists about beauty, Armstong began seeking out models unconnected with the stage to explore the mathematics of photogenics. In 1906, while in the midst of this transition, photographic critic Sadakichi Hartmann interviewed and profiled him: "He is a student of physiognomy and drapery, but sensible enough to allow his visitors free play and full sway of their own individuality; and this is the principal reason why all the faces in his portraits have such a cheerful, animated express and the gowns of his fair sitters such an elegant droop and sweep about them. There are few men who can make a woman handle her skirts and train, her hair, her shawl, or flowers more gracefully or more picturesquely than this photographer of pretty women." Armstrong manifested his aestheticism by experimenting with the softer focus lenses sold by the Euryscope Company (E. W. Histed, the champion of home portraiture was the chief other American user), as well as minimizing and abstracting features of the portrait backgrounds. As early as 1901 he confessed to be an "art photographer."
During the period of his greatest fame—from 1900 to 1910—he manifested his professionalism by active participation in the institutions of his business; he served as treasurer, vice-president, and later president of the National Academy of Photography; he was chief officer of the Photographers Association of New England; he also presided over the Lens and Brush Club of Boston, the foremost society of fine artists and photographers in New England.
During the first decade of the 20th century, Armstrong served as the chief theatrical photographer of the Boston Journal providing the images for the newpaper's extensive pictorial coverage. For a period of time in the 1910s Armstrong’s business suffered because of his love of whiskey. But during the war years he swore off booze and became one of the most productive society photographers in the city in the early 1920s.
The photographer should not be confused with William M. Armstrong, the singing actor who appeared on the stages of major American cities during the first three decades of the 20th century.
NOTES: Sadakichi Hartmann, American Amateur Photographer 18 (1906), 65. David S. Shields/ALS