Interview With Photographer Amy Arbus

The Clash, NYC, by Amy Arbus, 1981, gelatin silver print. The Morgan Library & Museum, Gift of Amy Arbus, 2018.74 Copyright © Amy Arbus

Currently exhibiting until August 18th at The Morgan Library & Museum in New York City is “Among Others: Photography and the Group”, an exhibition exploring the various ways photographers have united people, whether in a group photo or serial imagery. Photographer Amy Arbus’s iconic image of the punk rock band The Clash is included, as well as images by Peter Hujar, Ever Arnold, Danny Lyon and many others. On this occasion, we speak to Arbus about her start in photography and how her beautiful, fluid portrait of The Clash came to be.

Amy Touchette: When did you get started in photography, and what compelled you to do so?

Amy Arbus: Both of my parents were photographers, so it never occurred to me to be one myself. I tried everything else in the arts and finally decided to go to Berkelee College of Music in Boston. I was surrounded by child prodigies; in fact my friends formed the band The Cars. In my second year of school, I began to realize I didn’t have an innate talent for playing flute and saxophone. Then, I broke my two front teeth and couldn’t play for three weeks. I was so relieved not to be doing something so challenging for me.

A friend took me photographing in the park one day and I looked through the lens and I remember thinking that I see the world differently than other people. It felt so natural to be doing it. It was like I was home.

Years later I got a freelance job at The Village Voice. I was doing a monthly column for the style section that continued for 10 years. The best of the images are collected in my second book, On the Street 1980-1990 [the cover of which portrays the singer Madonna before she was famous].

Collage, Chicago, 1957, by Harry M. Callahan, gelatin silver print. The Morgan Library & Museum, Gift of Richard and Ronay Menschel, 2014.100. © The Estate of Harry Callahan; courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York.

AT: Can you tell us a bit about your photograph of The Clash in the exhibition? Were you on assignment? Please tell us how you went about capturing it, as well as what camera you used. 

AA: My camera of choice in those days was a Nikon FM2. It was the summer of 1981 and I was walking down Broadway to the village to photograph for The Village Voice. I knew the band The Clash was in town because I had tickets to one of their shows. And there they were on 47th Street and Broadway. They were waiting for their cameo in the movie King of Comedy by Martin Scorsese. I didn’t talk to them, which was unusual for me because I felt more comfortable engaging with my subjects. As I recall there are only three or four frames of them and no words were exchanged. They were busy waiting.

AT: What challenge(s) did you face making the image, and how did you solve those challenge(s)?

AA: I’m so thrilled I made the picture because most of their scene ended up on the cutting room floor. I didn’t face any challenges taking the picture because the light was right and the body language was already perfect. I just had to choose my camera angle and framing.

AT: What do you enjoy about photographing groups?

AA: Photographing groups is endlessly fascinating, but tremendously difficult because if one of your subjects is not in the right place or doesn’t have the right expression, they can ruin the whole picture. Sometimes the group creates a dramatic dynamic. When there are more than three people, I like to pose them because the chances get exponentially harder to get everyone in sync without posing them.

@amy_touchette 

Photo-multigraph of unidentified girl, by Myers Cope Co. Atlantic City, ca. 1920s, gelatin silver print with postcard back. The Morgan Library & Museum, Gift of Peter J. Cohen, 2015.119:100

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