Annals of Self-Invention
FASHION anarchy looks almost quaint in Amy Arbus’s portraits of downtown Manhattan denizens in the 1980’s. Their style was witty, tilted, nose-thumbing, a result of practical concerns about the cost of clothing and an expressive desire to invent a persona of one’s own.
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A new book, “On the Street, 1980-1990” (Welcome Books), assembles 70 images from the more than 500 Ms. Arbus made over 10 years for The Village Voice. Her photographs capture the fun — as well as the posturing — in a straightforward documentary style.
“The idea from The Village Voice was for me to go out and find people wearing something that turned my head,” Ms. Arbus said by phone from the Cohen Amador Gallery in Manhattan, where an exhibition of 25 of the photographs is on view through Oct. 14. “I found the subjects by just wandering around my neighborhood.”
“Michiyo Saito, East Seventh Street, 1989,” was taken in front of a shop that sold clothes imported from Japan. Ms. Arbus had walked by one day and looked inside. Everyone who worked there wore clothes from the shop. She photographed each of them outside in the street.
Ms. Arbus said some subjects she stopped in the street to photograph would mention having seen her pictures of their friends in her Voice column. “I wasn’t trying to document a particular group of people,” she noted, “but I eventually realized it was a scene, an extended community.”
The picture of Madonna was taken before her meteoric rise. “I stopped her on the street because I recognized her from the gym,” Ms. Arbus said. “She was the one sitting around naked in the locker room the longest. I remember looking at her and thinking that with a body like that, I would too. In the picture she looks as if she knew what was about to happen to her.”
Inevitably Ms. Arbus’s work will be compared to that of her mother, Diane. “I’m flattered if people see some correlation,” Ms. Arbus said. “But my work is much more intentionally and less technically sophisticated. My work is less confrontational. It was clear to my subjects that I adored how they looked. I tried to make them feel like they were getting an award for their creativity.”.