For over three decades, photographer Amy Arbus has been changing how we look at the world. In her pioneering Street Fashion column for the Village Voice, she captured an era, immortalizing the stylemavens and sartorially savvy denizens — like an undiscovered Madonna — of 1980s New York.
Daughter of legendary photographers Diane Arbus and Allan Arbus, Amy has published four books, including the award-winning On the Street 1980-1990 and The Inconvenience of Being Born, and has had twenty-two solo exhibitions worldwide. In celebration of her latest series “After Images,” in which she staged iconic portraits by painters like Picasso and Modigliani, we sat down with Arbus to discuss how she got her start. Select works from “After Images” are on view at the 1stdibs Gallery in New York through April 29 and at Massachusetts’ Griffin Museum of Photography through June 2. The complete series can be found in Arbus’ latest book After Images, out now from Schiffer Publishing.
So tell me a little bit about how you ended up working for the Village Voice. What was it like to be a 20-something-year-old woman in the ’80s walking into a company and essentially selling herself and her work? How did you find the confidence and self-assurance to do that?
I had lived in Boston for many years, at first for college and then, after graduating, I stayed there, and that’s when I became a photographer. There was a friend of mine, Jan Long — a newspaper actually just did a piece very recently on her. So I had all these pictures of Jan that I had taken for six months. I brought them to the Village Voice just because that was the only cohesive body of work that I had at the moment. They asked me if I wanted to basically do “On The Street” on spec and I was a little concerned about that, because I needed to make a living, but I thought “It’s a great opportunity, let me see what happens.” It did take me a good month of a half, two months, to get the feel of what I wanted to do, the style, just to get organized in my head about how to do this, and then it grew so much in the course of ten years — in terms of physically in the paper and also in terms of designing the page, making it look beautiful, and having themes so that the page would look cohesive. Then we started doing captions and naming the people and saying where I had run into them and what they were up to and a tiny quote from them. I didn’t set out to do street fashion but I had been doing it without realizing it.
How did you sustain yourself? You said you initially worked on spec for the Voice, so how did you making a living? How did you survive in New York?
Well I had been assisting for two years, for another photographer, and that was a living. It was also a great education. When I finally left to work with the Voice, I did whatever I could to make ends meet. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to stay in photography but I would print for people, I did my dark room work for free because I maintained a relationship with the woman I used to work for and we did a trade. I just made things happen.
Previous to becoming a photographer, you studied music and were fairly serious about it: you attended Berklee School of Music before studying photography at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. I know a lot of women my age, particularly those with interests in the arts, have a lot of anxiety about not necessarily “using” what they studied in college (and end up paying thousands of dollars for in loans) in their eventual careers. I’m interested to know whether you feel like there’s been interaction between your interest and knowledge of music and your photography.
I think there’s a lot of connection between music and photography. They are very related because they are both very mathematical and they take a certain kind of thinking. I just didn’t have the natural affinity that I felt was needed to be a success at music. I was surrounded by child prodigies and it was always frustrating to me — I worked ten times harder than anyone I knew and they were ten times better. I didn’t feel it was right; I felt like I wasn’t succeeding, even for myself. When I started photographing, I thought, “Oh this is good. This feels right.”
But my love for music is definitely still there. I wouldn’t say I’m on the cutting edge anymore, but it’s definitely still there. One of my next projects is to photograph musicians. It’s funny; it’s like going back to the beginning. I want an excuse to be around them more. I find it really interesting and challenging: the gear is so different, the lighting is so different. It’s its own challenge.
In a few interviews I have read, you discuss how embarrassed you were by the reaction to your first photograph. You’ve said, “It seemed to me that the camera understood what was going on better than I did. I felt as though I had been tricked by photography, that in some way this magic little black box was smarter than I was.” You went on to discuss how you were hesitant to become a photographer because you felt you didn’t have control over the medium. Have you become less interested in control? Have you learned how to let go in your artistic process?
It was more than not having control; it was getting credit for something that I didn’t feel that I had done. I felt like it happened in the “black box” and I didn’t know it was going to happen. I was uncomfortable with that feeling. Since I’ve studied with Richard Avedon in 1982, my life has changed. I think that it’s a gift when something happens that you didn’t have control over, that you couldn’t have preconceived. It’s a lot of what I teach: that fine line between having control and letting go.
Do you think that what photography has taught you about control and letting go is something you have applied to your life outside of your work?
Yes, absolutely. First of all, the reason why I’m still at it after all these years is because photography teaches me things that I could’ve never learned any other way, about what it’s like to be human, how to deal with people, how to get a desired response. I think I’m a better person for it actually.
What interests you in fashion and celebrity?
Well, not so much celebrity but I’m definitely interested in actors —
I suppose it’s more illusion and performance. I’m thinking of your portraits of actors in the series “The Fourth Wall.”
I love actors because my dad is an actor, his wife is an actress and now a director, and my half-sister is a director. I think that’s genetic as well, but I think I actually fell in love with theater through Avedon because he was obsessed. He went to the same production over and over again, knowing it changed all the time and to come up with ideas of how to photograph. I think it took me a long time to come to theater; I was surrounded by it but only peripherally. My dad wasn’t [in New York] anymore when he was actually pursuing acting as a living.
Some of your earlier work dwells in traditionally feminine spheres: fashion, domesticity, and, of course, children in “The Inconvenience of Being Born.” Yet, your photographs are anything but traditional: they are romantic, yes, but also filled with a sweet sadness and whimsy. Do you think being a woman influenced how you approached this subject matter and perhaps why you approached this subject matter at all?
I do think it is very significant that I am a woman. [Laughs] I was telling my students the other night — and they were completely upset by it but it’s not a secret — but I find it much more rewarding, in general, to photograph women then men. It’s not that I’m not interested in men; I’m plenty interested. I also photograph things that I am afraid of and I think men would fall in that category. Women are much more emotional, visually emotional. They are much more able to transform. With a man, there is only so much you can do to get him to look different than he looks.
Although, with one of my muses, that wasn’t an issue, but he was an actor. Actors can literally change the way they look. It’s elastic. You can see it with Meryl Streep, in her roles: it’s not just the makeup, which is fabulous, and it’s not just the hair; it’s that she can change the way her face looks and that’s what is so amazing to me. I don’t know how much effort it takes but I know that my women don’t make an effort to be someone other than they are. We do talk about it as if it were a play, as if we were doing scenes from a play. In other words, we give them a back story, so that it doesn’t feel static. We talk about what happened before and what happened later, why the painter picked that person, what the painter was going through in that time. So we had a lot of material to fantasize about; some is written, most of it isn’t.
Tell me about your work in “The Inconvenience of Being Born.” You were photographing babies, which is interesting since that is something that you can’t set up or control at all. How did you approach this subject?
The babies weres really tough. Not only can you not direct the babies but you can’t even have them stay in the frame. That was pretty exciting. That was really informative; that was really surprising to me, what infants are really like. I would photograph them for a half-hour, an hour maybe, at the most. Not long and not photographing most of the time. A lot of waiting and watching. It was fun because the parents had some idea that I knew something about that child that they didn’t know, that I had some sense of how they would turn out, and I did. I did actually go back — last year, they turned seventeen and I did go back and photograph about fifteen of them, which was really fun. Some of them were exactly the same.
You’ve said that early on in your days of photographing hip New York clubs like Mudd, you felt on the “periphery” of the art scene. How did your self-identification as an “outsider’ affect your interaction with your photo subjects?
I was really intrigued by them. Maybe if I was one of them they wouldn’t have seemed so foreign to me. But I wanted to be part of them and I thought this was the perfect way — the camera is always a tool to be able to talk to somebody, to start a relationship with somebody, if you want. It really gave me access to this scene that I didn’t have any way of getting involved in.
Do I feel like an outsider now? No, I don’t. I did with that and I certainly did with the babies — I knew that I wasn’t having any at that point. Also the mothers said I wouldn’t be as interested in their children if I had my own child because I would only be interested in that one. I might not have been quite as passionate if I had one at home who was waiting for me. I think I would feel torn since I would probably love mine the most and would feel guilty for being away from him/her. I don’t think I could’ve been as clear and driven and curious and all those things, if I had a child myself. I mean, I was doing it to find out if I wanted to do it, if I was missing the boat; I was doing research to find out if having a child was necessary to fulfillment. I realized that I didn’t have to have my own.