Amy Arbus has been photographing professionally for seventeen years. Her photographs have appeared in over one hundred periodicals around the world, including The New Yorker, Egoiste, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Aperture, and The New York Times Magazine. Her advertising clients include American Express, Nickelodeon, New Line Cinema, and Christiano Fissore. From 1980 through 1991 her monthly page, “On the Street,” appeared in the style section of The Village Voice. Her first book, No Place Like Home, portraits of people who live in unusual homes, was published by Doubleday & Company in 1986. Her second book, The Inconvenience of Being Born, is a photo essay on the extreme emotional nature of infants and will be published by Fotofolio in the fall of 1999. Amy Arbus is represented by the Edwynn Houk Gallery in New York. She has had eight one woman exhibitions worldwide, and her photographs are a part of the collection of The Museum of Modern Art.
This conversation was first seen in the Dec. 1999, Jan. 2000 issue of Camera Arts magazine.
John Paul Caponigro How did you personally enter the realm of photography?
Amy Arbus At the age of 14, I made a photograph of an apple against an eerie skyline. People acted like it was the greatest things they ever saw. This was so disconcerting that I didn’t pick up a camera for seven years. Then, a friend took me to the park to photograph one day and as soon as I looked through the lens I knew this was what I wanted to do. We went home and processed film and made prints. I was completely blown away by the magic of it, as though it had never occurred to me before, even though I was brought up in house full of images. I had this sense that people didn’t see the world the way that I did. I think that is really the thing that most people call confidence. That is the thing that has stayed with me. Then I made a million mistakes and was grateful for them. The part that I love about photography is the part that I can never predict. And yet, at first, I was embarrassed that I wasn’t fully responsible for the thing that was great about it. I felt that the photograph had taken me and I had somehow been duped by it. I think that I have spent my whole career trying to lasso photography, have some control over it, and know what I’m going to get. But, every time I get exactly what I thought I was going to get, I’m completely disappointed.
JPC These ‘gifts’ pull us beyond our ourselves.
AA Absolutely. So now the battle is to put myself in a situation where I have enough control to satisfy the task and to throw myself some sort of curve so that the magic can happen. It doesn’t always creep in there unless you give it room to.
For ten years I did a monthly “street fashion” page for The Village Voice. The great thing about it was that it was like being a style sleuth. I was out there finding the kids that were creating the ideas about fashion that designers would then copy, but these are the real trendsetters. Actually, a lot of these people have gone on to become famous in their own right. I felt that my subjects and I were engaging in a little game. I would go up to them and I would say, “Can I photograph you? I’m doing a style page for The Village Voice.” But what I was really saying to them in my heart was, “Do you want to play a game with me?” And they’d say, “Sure, that sounds fun.” We had something to do together. It took the awkwardness of meeting a stranger away. I could go to a party and feel completely intimidated, and I wouldn’t talk to anyone. But if I was out walking on the street, I could talk to anyone; all I needed was a camera.
I started going home with these people and through that and a series of other wonderful strokes of luck and timing, I got to do my first book, which is called No Place Like Home. I wanted to change the element of the clothes as a form of personal expression to something else. I was terrified of photographing indoors. I was terrified of lighting. I have this personality where if I see trouble, I have to go towards it. I’m not necessarily always proud of this, but it suits me better to deal with it than to ignore it. If I go to the eye of the storm, I think I’ll be okay.
When I was doing a story on obsessive collectors of the stars, I wondered why I could relate so easily. Then I realized it’s because I collect a lot of pictures. Photographs for me are not like a diary exactly. I feel if I can take a picture of something, I don’t need to have it. I’d almost rather have it as a photograph. I don’t have a lot of things. I have a lot of cameras. I have a lot of pictures.
In 1991, I did a story for The Village Voice on prostitutes. It was conceived of as a fashion story. It was the first time I had photographed surreptitiously, which I actually had to do to get these images. It was a very stupid and dangerous thing for me to. The pimps had guns in their cars and they weren’t afraid to use them. There are a lot of issues that you need to wrestle to the ground, moral issues, about being a photographer. The basic one is whether you have a right to be making these images of other people. I feel that what I’m doing is important enough. In addition to photographing a specific person, I think that I’m saying things about what it’s like to be human, and I think that is really an enormously important thing to be doing. That, combined with being able to see things differently is a powerful thing. If I weren’t a photographer, I think I’d be a psychologist, because the way people respond really interests me. The reason I’m drawn to certain things is because I don’t understand them or I want to get closer to them or examine them. I used to walk down the street as a kid and there were these incredibly fascinating gorgeous Puerto Rican girls that lived on my block, and I would stare at them. They thought it was an act of aggression. I thought it was the absolute biggest compliment. But they would say, “What are you looking at, girlie?” So I think the camera was a good excuse to stare.
In 1992 I took a master class with Richard Avedon and our first assignment was to do a self-portrait. In the initial meeting with the group, we went around the room and instead of saying, “Hi, I’m so-and-so, and this is the kind of photography that I do,” we described an image that would portray who we were as a person. Eight out of the sixteen people described an image of someone in water. So when I set out to do my self-portrait, I thought I’ve got to do it in water. It seemed so obvious to me. It was February in New York and the only water available to me was in my tub. That was all that was in my head. Literally, when my foot touched the water I knew why I was taking these pictures, for a much more complicated reason than I let on to myself. What was in my head was the fine line between sexuality and violence. I don’t know if this was conscious, but I was thinking about death, obviously, and birth. Instead of acting it out I was thinking about it. When I saw these images, I was terrified by them. First of all, they were unflattering. I even redid the assignment so I didn’t have to show these pictures in class. I did a really happy picture of myself with my hair flying in the air. I showed that photograph and I showed a tub picture of my back. Avedon said, “Aha! Where are the rest of these?” I showed him the whole contact sheet. He sent his assistant up to the Xerox machine, and she blew them up, and all of a sudden my naked body was all over the room. When he said, “Wow, you have moved,” that, to me, was both thrilling and devastating. It made it hard to do anything else. It also convinced me of the power of photography to record feelings. In a very profound and literal way, all you have to do is think about it and there it is. Not only was I convinced of the power of photography, but having him respond to the images with such enthusiasm completely changed the stakes for me. He instilled in all of us a confidence and he made me feel that, as a photographer, I had the responsibility to take the medium to a new level. Without that, if I was just mucking around in it, then I was just holding it back or, in some way, disrespecting it. I had to do something that was important.
JPC This was indeed a courageous act!
AA Well, here’s the thing, it wasn’t done out of courageousness. A lot of the way I protected myself was by not being conscious. Like I said, I didn’t know what I was doing until my toe hit the water. I forgot that my mother died in the bathtub. That’s a pretty big thing to forget.
Making these photographs was an absolute turning point in my life. The pictures are actually about being born. Photography, which has been so close to me my entire life, changed in one moment. I understood the power of it in a very specific way.
JPC It could take a lifetime or a very short time to truly understand something. There’s no forcing such a realization.
AA Which is why I show those images. I feel blessed to have had that moment. I really feel like it is such a clear way to express this to other people, who want to be photographers, and I think it’s the greatest gift I can give them. Proof.
JPC I liked what Avedon said, “Amy Arbus is the daughter of Diane Arbus, which is part of her story that won’t and probably shouldn’t go away. Her work, like that of a generation of photographers, was derivative of her mother’s. But in fulfilling the class assignment, she left that influence behind and went to a place that had no precedent in her own, her mother’s, or anyone else’s work. ·In these portraits, she appears to me to be simultaneously the one giving birth and the one being born as her fully realized self. · The metaphor of giving birth and being born that seems imbedded in these self-portraits proved to have the logic of something inevitable, as if the work knew where it had to go. Amy Arbus’s next portraits were of babies.”
AA It took me two years to find the baby project.
JPC How did you come to the baby project?
AA All of my friends were pregnant. They were due each, one a month, for nine months. Initially I wanted to make presents for them. So I’d photograph the babies when they were first home from the hospital. When I was photographing the second baby, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Somehow the camera made this all clear to me whereas it hadn’t been before. I thought that newborn babies all looked alike and hadn’t achieved their personality yet and they were unformed in the most profound sense. Actually they are much more strange, and much more interesting, and much more individual, and much more emotional than I ever expected. I was completely obsessed with this project. I was madly in love with these creatures. I think that, to the mothers, was a big surprise. They hadn’t experienced that. Everyone loves their own and nobody is quite as interested in yours as you are. But, I was. There were some that I liked better than others, only because they were more expressive or more responsive. I had such a clear sense of what I thought was going on with these little creatures, that didn’t communicate with words, that I felt like I really understood who these people were. The mothers would empower me. They would look to me as though I could divine the future of their child’s personality.
JPC There’s that great story of Katherine and how her mother said she wouldn’t have recognized the pictures of her daughter before, but now she did. You said, “I love the idea that through the camera I am able to see the future.” It reminded me of the Picasso story where a sitter objected that she didn’t look a thing like the painting and he replied, “You will.”
You talked about how raw emotion later became mitigated.
AA Self-consciousness kicks in at a frighteningly early age.
JPC That’s an interesting dimension. You’re constantly having to deal with that in older subjects. Is it any easier to deal with in younger subjects?
AA Sometimes the babies knew how to get a desired response. Mostly, it wasn’t until they were about five months old. Which is the point at which I stopped photographing them. They knew if they flashed a toothless grin people would melt. I was interested in what happens to a face in between an expression as opposed to a fully achieved expression. Photographically this was the most interesting project that I have ever done. I was relieved of the responsibility of directing my subject, because there was no way to do it. My only means of control was to be quick enough to capture moments. Sound was our primary means of communication. Babies can hear when they are in the womb so when they’re born that is their primary sense. Sight is key at the point at which they start focusing, which is when they are roughly three weeks. Smell is very important. In other words, they’re extremely sensual. All the communication is through whether they like those three things about you. Touch of course, but for the most part I didn’t touch the babies. Sometimes I would ask to. But, I didn’t feel like most of the moms wanted me to. I felt like they were too new for some stranger to touch them. So I made silly sounds, which they loved. It was amazing to have all of my tricks taken away. Also, they change their expressions twice as fast as big people. They change their expression once every seven seconds, and a couple of weeks go by and they become a different looking person.
JPC It’s interesting that you communicate with them with sound but you noted that “Infancy means the inability to speak, from the Latin infans, or speechless.” You don’t share a common language. They’re prelingual. And yet the primary thing you use to communicate with is sound, a nonlinguistic sound. It’s all expression, expression without form.
AA When you start working as a photographer your mind is working on so many things that it’s impossible to carry on a conversation. I think there’s a lot of pressure to be able to do that very thing because that’s the only tool you have with adults to get their mind off of what they’re doing so that they’re not self-conscious. When you’re relieved of that it’s so much more relaxing. Also, you can be silly with babies and not be self-conscious yourself. The more ridiculous you are the more they appreciate it.
JPC We talked about unmediated being. There is a tendency to look as photography as being something that is unmediated, unfiltered, which is a very problematic but interesting notion. Would you say that these photographs are less mediated? Maybe we should say more transparent?
AA I wasn’t going in with any preconceived notions.
JPC Was that easy to sustain?
AA Yes. I was so taken by this whole thing. I really didn’t want to do anything else. I found it hard to concentrate on other things. Then I couldn’t stop. I had to make myself stop it. It was really hard.
JPC What are you doing now?
AA It’s not fashion, it’s not film stills, it’s not about art. The images are moments in a lonely woman’s life. And that’s all I can really say about them. I’m pleased that they don’t present themselves as photographs fit in a certain category.
JPC The work will announce itself in its own time.
AA You can’t rush much in this life. You can try.