Between 1980 and 1990, over five hundred of photographer Amy Arbus’s impromptu and edgy portraits of New Yorkers appeared in the Village Voice’s monthly fashion feature, “On the Street.” The column’s missive was to document the city’s most adventurous trednsetters as they lived their lives. But Arbus’s photographs tell much more than a style story. From the friendliest to the grittiest, every one of these images is a potent tribute to self-expression. Taken as a whole, they reflect an era of contradictions, a time in America when urban individualism and raw creativity were courageously fighting for breathing room and holding their own in a culture ruled by wealthy conservatism and Republican politics.
For the first time since that hard-to-define decade, this time-capsule collection of images is being revisited. On the Street features seventy of the most revealing and expressive images taken by Arbus on the city’s fashion-fertile sidewalks. From the unknown to the unmistakably famous, her subjects are all equally unforgettable. Arbus’s ubiquitous lens captured the most influential style-makers, from The Clash on the set of Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy and Madonna on the same day her single Everybody hit the charts, to Anna Sui, Joey Arias, Phoebe Legére, and countless other local artists, actors, costume designers, shop owners, musicians, make-up artists, graffiti artists, and downtown scenesters. From eyewear to underwear and schoolgirl skirts to backless shirts; from women dressed like men to men that are barely dressed; from lipstick to just plain “schtik,” there is no aspect of 80’s style that goes unrepresented.
A. M. Homes, the renowned author of The End of Alice and contributing editor at Vanity Fair, offers a personal and illuminating essay that introduces and celebrates Arbus’ photographs, while elegantly placing them in the context of the time in which they were taken.