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Style that's out there

Photos by Amy Arbus revisit New York's 1980s street scene.

March 15, 2007|Shana Ting Lipton | Special to The Times

IN the early 1980s, high school student Andre Walker and his friend Pierre Francillon were teen trendsetters. By night, they slept on the floor of New York nightlife guru Suzanne Bartsch's apartment so they could go clubbing. By day, they hit the streets of New York in their suspender socks, suit vests and shorts.

So it was in 1983 that Amy Arbus photographed the pair, as she tried to capture the city's creative spirit in her portraits of street style arbiters and artists such as Walker, who has since gone on to become a successful fashion designer and stylist. More than 20 years after its peak -- and amid the apropos backdrop of L.A. Fashion Week, starting this weekend -- the scene is being revisited through "On the Street: 1980-1990," a show of 43 Arbus photographs at the Stephen Cohen Gallery.

The exhibition is a selection of works taken for Arbus' former monthly Village Voice style column "On the Street" and compiled in her most recent book of the same name, which was released in September from Welcome Books. Many of the photographer's hipster subjects were struggling creative people who became mavens in their respective fields, or at least gained wider recognition in subsequent years. Arbus said that after she photographed the young Walker and his friend, "Andre told me that Andy Warhol saw that photograph of them in the Voice and called them up and asked to paint them."

Arbus, herself no stranger to artistic renown (she is the daughter of photographer Diane Arbus and actor Alan Arbus), was captivated by the inventiveness that marked New York during what she has called "The Age of Innocence" -- before the spread of AIDS, Sept. 11 and the Iraq War. "I wanted access to this scene that I wasn't part of," she recalled. The Village Voice, a newspaper known for its edgy coverage of politics, style and local goings-on, was the calling card that gave her entry into this world. "It was the bible of that time," said Arbus, who'll be back in L.A. with author A.M. Holmes to discuss the era at the UCLA Hammer Museum on April 18. "Being in the Voice was like getting an award for your creativity."

Though Arbus is a native New Yorker, her path to the Village Voice began in Boston. There, she befriended a stylish girl who worked at a clothing store. The two borrowed garments from the shop and took to the streets looking for locations where Arbus could shoot her. When the photographer moved back to New York, she used the resulting images to cinch the new job. On Day One, the only parameters given by her editor were to "shoot everything that makes you turn your head," Arbus said. The result: a column whose tagline was "There are eight million fashions in the Naked City and Amy Arbus is going to photograph all of them ... a few at a time."

In all, about 500 photographs were published in the column over 10 years. "One of the many nice things that has been said of the work is that it's a seamless blend of fashion and portraiture," Arbus said. "That was my goal."

The impromptu black-and-white portraits in the show and book portray what Welcome Books publisher Lena Tabori said are "people who put on costumes to become themselves," adding that Arbus' current work doing portraiture of theatrical performers is "people who put on costumes to become somebody else."

Some of the photographer's street scene subjects sport clothing indicative of the era -- headbands, fitted zipper jackets and creeper shoes. Others wear imaginative creations that seem a bit more difficult to categorize. In the case of Charles Rosenberg -- now a Los Angeles resident who DJs at the Standard Hotel -- and his brother, it was backless shirts and pinstriped pants. There's also a vinyl-clad couple and their leather-vested dog, as well as a short-haired woman in a gender-bending suit.

Another component of the collection is the inclusion of fringe culture celebrities, such as New York drag artist and performer Joey Arias (who currently plays Mistress of Seduction in Cirque de Soleil's adult-themed Las Vegas production "Zumanity") and the late singer and underground performance artist John Sex.

And Arbus gives a glimpse into the humble beginnings of now well-known fashion designer Anna Sui, who "was not a big deal at that point; she was just starting out."

Speaking of luminaries, the first image in the gallery's reception area (and the cover image of Arbus' book) is of an on-the-verge Madonna in 1983, wrapped in a large overcoat, wearing bobby socks and pointy shoes. Arbus said she took the photograph around the time that the Village Voice ran a review of her debut namesake album. Arbus recalled the experience of photographing the young singer: "She was funny. I asked her about the clothes she was wearing and she said she still had her pajamas on [underneath]."

That would seem to summarize the sense of ordinary outrageousness that makes up street style and "On the Street" specifically. But to Arbus, Madonna's contribution is no more vital than that of the other, lesser-known participants in her decade-long photographic foray.

"I was photographing these people to make them look like superstars," she said, "because I thought they were."

weekend@latimes.com

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`On the Street: 1980-1990'

Where: Stephen Cohen Gallery, 7358 Beverly Blvd., L.A.

When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays

Ends: April 21

Info: (323) 937-5525, www.stephencohengallery.com

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