The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Village Threads
Amy Arbus
On the Street 1980-1990
Photo by Amy Arbus . Source: us.leica-camera.com/culture/galleries/gallery_new_york/
Amy Arbus, " Madonna, St. Mark’s Place, " 1983

As photography assignments go, the one that Amy Arbus had for the Village Voice from 1980 to 1990 would be hard to top. She roamed the streets of the East Village looking for style makers and trendsetters to put in her monthly style feature, On the Street. “I would go out with my camera and look for themes: animal prints, checks, stripes, bow ties, hats or mismatched patterns,” Arbus said. She photographed performance artists, musicians, costume designers, and graffiti artists as well as style makers such as Sui, Joey Arias and Phoebe Legere. In 1983, she spotted Madonna on St. Marks Place in a beat-up overcoat and holding a bowling ball bag; her picture of the soon-to-be famous singer would become iconic.

Over the ten-year period, the Voice published more than 500 of her pictures and, in 2006, 70 of the best known were published in the book, On The Street 1980-1990. Richard Avedon commented,” 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.”

Photo by Amy Arbus . Source: us.leica-camera.com/culture/galleries/gallery_new_york/
Amy Arbus, "Jenny Gift-Wrapped, 59th Street1982" 1982

The exhibition now at the Leica Gallery features 42 of Arbus’s black and white images, many never shown before. Overall, the show offers a sense of what it was like on Village streets back in the day. Arbus was drawn to the non-conformists, the hipsters, the creative types that felt comfortable hanging out downtown; her photographs capture this reality and you’re compelled to take a closer look at many of them. Fill flash lighting helped make her subjects stand out more and showed more of the details. And there are plenty of them.

Photo by Amy Arbus . Source: us.leica-camera.com/culture/galleries/gallery_new_york/
Amy Arbus, "Flip Family"

You want to take a closer look at the casual portrait entitled “Flip family”. Arbus shoots from a low angle to reveal a young couple in black leather, the woman wearing chains around her waist, her guy looking very cool with bandanna, shades, hat and tall boots with spurs. But their dog is what really sets them apart. He is wearing a leather jacket with spikes on it and adorned with the name “Flip.”

Photo by Amy Arbus . Source: us.leica-camera.com/culture/galleries/gallery_new_york/
Amy Arbus

“Key Dress” is another traffic stopper—then and now. A woman opens her fur coat to show she’s wearing chains from head to toe, with a giant lock and key covering her mid-section. There are other keys hanging on the chains. It’s easy to see why Arbus stopped to take “Eyeliner” – it’s just more fashion fun. A thin line bisects a man’s face and his closed eyes accentuate the effect. Clearly keeping her eyes open for the weird or the bizarre, she photographed the back of a man’s shaved head, with just a large tuft of hair sticking out from the side in “Bald Head”. Another fashion statement, “Tits Suit”, is what it says. We see a woman wearing a zippered jacket with two horizontal slots that accentuate her breasts. Her long hair also helps point our eyes down. And it’s hard not to stare at “Fuck Pants.” Here the photographer gets down on the ground to show a pair of shiny leather men’s boots covered by the bottom of men’s pants imprinted with FUCK multiple times. I liked the way Arbus positioned the feet; it seems to add casualness to the picture that is offset by the harshness of the profanity. It was the kind of downtown fashion that big designers used for ideas.

This is street photography of another sort—straight on, honest, revealing, subtle, memorable – and always fashionable.

Amy Arbus
On the Street 1980-1990


Leica Gallery
670 Broadway 5th Fl
Lower Manhattan - West         Map

212 777 3051
us.leica-camera.com/culture/galleries/gallery_new_york/

Friday, February 28 to
Saturday, April 19, 2014
Hours: Tues-Fri 12 to 6, Sat 12 to 5
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