The art of street-style photography is not a new phenomenon, and no one knows that better than Amy Arbus, who documented one of New York City’s most dynamic decades in her “On the Street” column for the Village Voice from 1980 to 1990.
“The only direction I was given was to photograph anyone that made me turn my head,” Arbus explains. “The theory behind the whole On the Street page for ten years was that these kids were inventing the styles that then were going to be borrowed by [designers such as] Marc Jacobs, Anna Sui.”
Arbus, who operates out of a studio in Greenwich Village, says that as a young photographer trying to make a name for herself outside the shadow cast by her very famous mother, Diane Arbus, On the Street put her on the map. “As my father put it, it was the kind of PR no money could buy. It was wonderful to be known for my very own thing and not just as my mother’s daughter. I was using a lighting technique that she made famous — the flash-fill technique. I didn’t come to it because of what she did but because of the unfortunate reproduction of images in the newspaper. It was a completely practical reason.”
Arbus, a self-described very shy kid, says On the Street allowed her to play the extrovert. “It was an excuse to talk to anybody,” she says. “It was a way for me personally to be involved in a very hip scene, the downtown East Village scene, that I wasn’t initially a part of.”
After doing the column for a few years, Arbus became a sought-after part of that scene. “The column had a little cult following,” she says. “People would always look for it, and they were excited about the prospect of being in it. By ’83 or ’84, people would say, ‘I’ve been waiting for you to come along! What took you so long?’ ”
The characters Arbus immortalized on newsprint were creative types: artists, musicians, actors. Pre-fame Madonna (“when she still used her last name”) was one. “Rumor had it that she was sleeping on the floor of her studio,” Arbus says. “I recognized her from my gym, and I don’t know how either of us afforded a gym membership. She was the one who used to hang out naked in the women’s locker room longer than anybody else. And I thought: ‘Good for you. If I had a body like that, I’d do it, too.’ ”
But Arbus, who considers herself a portrait photographer before a fashion photographer, wasn’t looking for performers to perform or actors to act when she snapped their pictures. “I was interested in a very simple moment of rest,” she explains, “where people were unfettered with discomfort.”
According to Arbus, that was an era, too, during which twentysomethings were unfettered by the kinds of pressure young artists face today. “I was documenting a time that doesn’t exist anymore and a kind of freedom that doesn’t exist anymore,” she says. “The world is such a different place. The concerns of young people are much more intense.”
Intense, undoubtedly, but the sidewalks of New York City remain a veritable catwalk on which the young, the bold, and the fearless express themselves daily via their unique fashion choices. As we reintroduce On the Street, we pay homage to the authentic style portraiture Amy Arbus initiated back in 1980 and focus our lens on today.
[This is part of the winter 2015 edition of The Seen, a quarterly style supplement by the Village Voice devoted to exploring and sharing the most dynamic elements of New York City’s fashion and design worlds, from the iconic to the as yet undiscovered. Check out the rest of The Seen’s featured stories here.]