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March 8 - April 21, 2007 at Stephen Cohen Gallery, West Hollywood

by Jody Zellen

As Richard Avedon has noted, “Everybody has a life.  Everybody has a sensibility.  Everybody has yearnings.  Everybody has a cause to plead.  And everybody has a camera.  It takes an intelligence as bold as Amy Arbus to turn these universal commonplaces not just into works of art, but works of insight.”  In the 1980’s this New York based photographer was asked by the Village Voice to take photographs for a weekly feature entitled “On the Street.”  For ten years she perused her neighborhood and others, making over 500 images that documented a specific time and place in New York City’s creative history.  Arbus’ subjects were artists, performers and designers who viewed creative dress as part of their personalities.  The Village Voice asked her to photograph everyone who made her head turn, but she was looking for something beyond the sensational, and her images often focus on the more subtle aspects of her subject’s appearance.  Arbus was not trying to document a particular group of people, but eventually realized that she was focusing on a community which pushed fashion’s boundaries.

The photographs Arbus made for the Voice have recently been published by Welcome Books in a collection entitled “On The Street 1980-1990: Photographs by Amy Arbus,” and it is these that are on view at the gallery.  It is clear when looking at Arbus’ photographs that she had a trusting relationship with her subjects.  That they did not view her as a voyeur is evident in the emotional intensity of the images.  When asked how she got the cooperation of her subjects she replied, “When asking to photograph someone it is because I love the way they look, and I think I make that clear.  I’m paying them a tremendous compliment.  What I am saying is I want to take you home with me and look at you for the rest of my life.”  Her images focus on expressions, details like shoes as well as an outrageous hair style or outfit.  Usually she photographed an individual or a pair against innocuous backgrounds, but every now and then she allowed the street to come into focus, giving the image a specific rather than a general location.  While individuals make up the majority of the images, she also made group portraits that celebrated the diverse looks and outfits among a crowd standing on a street corner.

"Madonna," 1983, gelatin
silver print, 20 x 16".

"Ann Magnussen," 1981, gelatin
silver print, 20 x 16".

"Phoebe Lègére, Fur Bikini," 1987,
gelatin silver print, 20 x 16".

"Rafael Araujo," 1987-8, gelatin
silver print, 20 x 16".

As they appeared in the Voice, images were often combined.  The subjects were always identified and the image captioned with a witty or descriptive quote.  When presented in the gallery or in the book, the images are isolated and devoid of caption, thus each must now stand for itself.  Arbus shot with a 35 mm camera, making grainy black and white images always printed with a ragged black border.  This format is akin to other photographers who were making pictures in the streets of New York City, and who clung to a ‘what you see is what you get’ aesthetic that did not allow for any cropping or posing.  Arbus’ work hovers between street and fashion photography.  While all of her images are posed, they have the spontaneity of more candid images, like those made by street photographers such as Gary Winogrand, Mary Ellen Mark and Roy DeCavara.

The photographs in “On The Street” capture a specific place and time.  For Arbus the 1980’s were a creative and experimental time and her images reflect that joy.  Among her best known images is a photograph of Madonna (“Madonna, St. Marks Place” [1983]) wearing an overcoat.  She happened to be wandering down the street just after the release of her first album.  “The look on her face,” says Arbus, “is so prescient--it really has a sense of knowing what’s in store for her.”  Other compelling images include a portrait of “Kevin F. Johnson” (1984), who decorated his face with a horizontal band of eyeliner; “Rafael Araujo” (1987-88), whose hairy thighs peek through striped leggings and checkered hot pants; and “Rasta Hair,” featuring dreadlocks sculpted like a skyscraper.  Seeing Arbus’ images today makes one feel melancholic.  They trigger memories of a time, a place and a freedom that has passed.  Yet they survive as documents and as testimonies to that spirit, forever frozen in time by Arbus’ eye.