Amy Arbus’s first job as a photographer was to capture cutting-edge street style for the Voice‘s monthly fashion section in the ’80s. She sought out the most outrageous and influential trendsetters of the day, and her pictures inspired numerous fashion designers, including Halston and Gucci. It wasn’t long before East Village scenesters began to look for her, hoping she would pick them next.
On the Street: 1980–1990, a collection of 70 of the more than 500 black-and-white portraits Arbus shot for the Voice, offers a compelling look back on the curious self-made style of the downtown demimonde—drag performers, punk rockers, fashion designers, and anyone daring to look different. Twins in ripped, backless shirts, a woman with a dress made of chains and keys, and a man with a long strip of eyeliner drawn across his face all yearned to be noticed, and Arbus rewarded their individuality with a snap of her camera. Aiming to depict street-style in the raw, she favored more of an artless, documentary approach: Most of her subjects look straight into the camera or a little to the side, with stiff, self-conscious expressions.
In the process of recording New York style, Arbus also snapped future stars. Among the book’s highlights are Anna Sui in her famous tent dress and Madonna in a bulky, stained overcoat the week her first single was released. The most memorable and beautifully composed photo in the book is of the Clash hanging out on the set of a Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy—and, interestingly, it’s the book’s only impromptu shot.
In the introduction, A.M. Homes writes of the era, “There was a palpable sense of romance about life and all it had to offer, an innocence the likes of which we have never seen since.” On the Street is a fascinating record of that innocence, of people struggling for identity in the big city. Whether you’re a fan of ’80s fashion or street style, it’s a nostalgia trip well worth taking.