AMY ARBUS/ THE OUTSIDERS
September 1-27, 2017
THOUGHTS ON ‘THE OUTSIDERS’ FROM AMY ARBUS
Last month I had a student, Matt, that asked me a deceptively simple question, but the more I thought about it, the more complex it became. His query was, “What makes you make photographs?” In answering his question I realized that however much I’ve changed, or my relationship to photography has changed over the years, my need to take pictures hasn’t.
I started photographing when my parents stopped. My mom, Diane Arbus, died and my dad, Allan Arbus, quit photography, moved to California and became an actor. My mom’s photographs were both a social document and a personal diary. Losing her was so traumatic that it was as though I was frozen in time for ten years. I missed having photographs to document my life. I felt like if there wasn’t evidence, it didn’t happen. I remembered things with great lucidity or not at all. Photography was my memory.
I was alone a lot and my camera became my best friend. The more I photographed, the more I felt that if I had a picture of someone or something, then I didn’t need the thing itself, for example a beautiful woman, a great dress, a baby or a brownstone — but I have to admit I still want a beach house.
Seeing me now, it’s hard to believe that I was a really shy kid. The camera was a perfect excuse to approach people, engage with them and look at them a little longer than was considered socially acceptable. Photography gave me the chance to observe, to contemplate and try to make sense of things I was afraid of or didn’t understand.
I’m making a series on homeless people that I’m calling “The Outsiders” because they live their life outdoors, and in public. I wondered why everyone, including myself, was afraid to look at them. After all, it could happen to any of us, but its not contagious. Looking at them makes me feel complicit. Unless I do something, I feel responsible. I thought if I could photograph them with compassion, then those who are more fortunate, might stop avoiding them and treat them with respect and possibly come up with a solution.
According to Mayor De Blasio, there are 40% more homeless in New York than there were last year. He proposed building 90 new shelters throughout the city so that people could stay in their own neighborhoods. He was met with resistance because people didn’t want shelters in their backyard, but homelessness is already proliferating right in our backyards.
Photography can be frustrating, challenging, disappointing and exhilarating but never dull. Lisette Model, who was my mother’s teacher, said she felt the desire to photograph someone as physical response in the pit of her stomach. For me, when I see beauty I’m drawn to it as though it were a magnet. I need to get closer.
I’m careful about what pictures I put on my wall. Whether I am looking at them or not they have a psychological effect on me. I have to respect them because I know how powerful they can be.
Amy Arbus (born April 16, 1954) is an American, New York City-based, photographer. She has taught portraiture at the International Center of Photography, Anderson Ranch, NORD photography and the Fine Arts Work Center. She has published several books of photography, including The Fourth Wall which The New Yorker called her “masterpiece.” Her work has appeared in over 100 periodicals including The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Architectural Digest, and The New York Times Magazine. She is the daughter of actor Allan Arbus and photographer Diane Arbus, the sister of writer and journalist Doon Arbus, and the niece of distinguished poet Howard Nemerov.
From 1980 to 1990, Arbus had a monthly street style column in the Village Voice’s entitled “On the Street”. On starting with the Village Voice, Arbus said that “I went to the Voice with a portfolio that I had taken of one woman, my friend Jan Collins…All they said to me was ‘take a picture of anyone who makes you turn your head”. These photographs explore performances of self and the ways in which people used fashion as an expression of creativity. Her column often featured portraits of celebrities and tastemakers early in their careers including Madonna, fashion designer Anna Sui, nightlife impresario Susanne Bartsch, Andre Walker and The Clash. Arbus shot her subjects from slightly below to “suggest they were monuments.”
In 2006, Welcome Books published On the Street : 1980-1990, a collection of more than 70 of the most influential images from Arbus’ time at the Village Voice, those that “lend a voice to an era when individuality and self-expression were fighting for breathing room in a culture that valued economics over creativity.” John Spellos then created a documentary called On the Street following Arbus as she tracked down the subjects of these photographs 25 years after they were taken.
In a talk at UCLA’s Hammer Museum, Arbus described her reluctance to become a photographer and her years studying at the Berklee College of Music and hanging out with The Cars (then still unknown), before studying at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In an interview published in The Guardian, she explains her initial reluctance to enter the field of photography, stating, “I was holding myself back, afraid to compete with this legend… But I remember the minute the viewfinder came up to my eye, I thought, I’m home.”