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Now that Manhattan is only habitable for the rich, New Yorkers love to look back to the mad ‘80s, when the Bowery was dangerous and apartments were affordable. Nostalgia stalks the five boroughs (via American Apparel outlets—the Starbucks of style), whether for acid-washed rap fashion, Mudd Club art parties, or coke in cheap bars. But it’s not all so glitzy. Between 1980 and 1990, The Village Voice ran photographer Amy Arbus’s “On the Street” photo column, a page documenting downtown’s most vibrant, creative dressers and personalities, and now the greatest hits have been published by Welcome Books. We caught up with Arbus to find out how it all started, and whether or not she’s packing shoulder pads.

Photographer Amy Arbus has been photographing professionally for 24 years. She is a contributing photographer to
New York Magazine’s theater section. Her photographs have appeared in over one hundred periodicals The New Yorker, Aperture, People, ESPN, and The New York Times Magazine. On the Street is her third book. She is the daughter of the late photographer Diane Arbus and the actor Allan Arbus.

How did the “On the Street” column come about?

It started when I went to the Voice, looking for freelance work, with a series I’d done in Boston with a friend whom I’d met at a clothing store. This was in 1980, in the fall. She’d borrow clothes from the store and I’d scout wonderful locations and then we’d shoot. She was a real chameleon, so it looked like a series of different persons. And this was my portfolio.

The editors said they wanted someone to do street fashion and I said great. They asked me to do it on spec for three months, and I was appalled. I needed to make a living! But I’ve since been very grateful for those three months—I needed that time to figure out what I was doing, what I was looking for. I mean, I was taking pictures on the bus at first.

Where’d you find these people?

I’d wander around the Village, mostly, and look for people that were doing similar things. You know, something that would make sense visually—a lot of polka dots, or stripes, or everyone wearing hats in the summertime.

At the time, there was nothing else like it. Now there are lots of similar things, but there hadn’t been any kind of record of the East Village scene when it was this particularly promising, hopeful group of talented, interesting people.

Was Bill Cunningham doing his page in the Times at that point?

I remember not being aware of it, and it certainly wasn’t called “On the Street.” Then halfway through the ‘80s I said, “Oops, the Times is using our title—don’t we want to change it?” And my editors were like, “No! Who cares?”

So, one day you’re walking down the street, and here comes Madonna…

Madonna just wandered along like everyone else. I recognized her as the girl who went to my gym—as the girl who would sit around naked longest in the locker room. Now that I think back on it, how could either of us have afforded a gym membership? She still had a last name at that point, and when I told her I worked for the Voice, she said, “Oh, that’s so funny. They’re reviewing my first single this week.”

I recently looked back—it only took six frames to get that picture. I just think the look on her face is so prescient—it really has a sense of knowing what’s in store for her.

What do you miss from that period in New York City’s history?

So many things. Mostly, a philosophical and emotional sense of what life was like. Which had to do with our age and the time we were living in and the innocence of it all, the positive nature and the sense that we could do anything we wanted to do. That’s what I’m most nostalgic about.

In terms of the clothes, I think they were fantastic and funny and outrageous and silly. And great! I loved how people looked then. I had a lot of pressure from the Voice to do more and more outrageous stuff, but I was always more interested in the subtle strange stuff. So we had this slight dilemma of them wanting more punk—the taller hair, the longer earrings—and I was trying to get the girl who shaved her forehead a little high. The totally unique stuff.

My favorite in the book is the girl with the Astor Street haircut. She’s just so different from the rest. She looks kind of wounded, actually.

I love her sense of pride about that haircut—I mean she was the first woman to go there, the place had just opened and it wasn’t yet this famous street-kid barbershop, it really was a barbershop, and she was the first woman to have enough cojones to go in there. They gave her this outrageous haircut. And I thought despite her innate sadness, she had a sense of pride about having done this.

There was no kind of judgment going on at the time. Everyone wanted to be noticed, no matter what it was for. That’s completely gone. Being noticed is irrelevant now. You have to make such waves to be a success at things now that dressing differently may make an impression, but it’s not going to get you a career.

Were you a Mudd Club chick?

Yes! One year, on my birthday, the phone rang and it as somebody from the club saying they wanted to do a show of my work. That was really the first show of these pictures. Man, that was a pretty great birthday present.

And what are you doing now?

I’m photographing Broadway and Off-Broadway actors in character—in costume—but out of context of their play. It’s very related to what I was doing. It has an impromptu feel about it. It’s not about documenting a time; it’s about documenting fictional characters that don’t exist, but are every bit as believable as any of us. It’s also sort of a historical record of costume and design. I’m completely in love with this. It definitely comes from the same attraction.

Do you have any padded-shoulder jackets in the back of your closet?

I’ve tried to take all the pads out of all my shoulders, but there’s a few more to go. Yeah, I love clothes.
 

Rosecrans Baldwin co-founded The Morning News. He is the author of Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down and You Lost Me There. His next novel is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. More information can be found at his website. More by Rosecrans Baldwin