Amy Arbus has published five books, including the award winning “On the Street 1980-1990” and “The Inconvenience of Being Born.” The New Yorker called “The Fourth Wall” her masterpiece. Her most recent, “After Images,” is an homage to modernism’s most iconic avant-garde paintings. Her photographs have appeared in over one hundred periodicals around the world, including New York Magazine, People, Aperture and The New York Times Magazine. She has had twenty-five solo exhibitions worldwide, and her photographs are a part of the collection of The National Theater in Norway, The New York Public Library and The Museum of Modern Art in New York.
How did you first find your way into the photography world?
I took a photography class in 9th grade. Our first assignment was to photograph an apple with a Brownie Box camera. The camera had no settings but it did make correct exposures in nice light. I was known for my big mouth (physically that is).
I took a huge bite out of the apple and photographed it on my roof. There was a menacing sky over the building in the background, which I didn’t happen to notice. In class while I was making the print everyone acted like it was the greatest image they’d ever seen.
I didn’t feel responsible for what made it a strong picture and therefore I was embarrassed for taking credit for what I thought was a lucky accident.
I didn’t photograph for 7 years. After my mom died and my father moved to California to pursue acting, I started to miss photography in a very profound way.
It was as though I wasn’t living, if there weren’t proof.
What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of being a working photographer?
Making a living.
How was your experience shooting with the Petzval Lens?
I was given the lens without any explanation or any apertures.
At first I found it hard to focus. Once I understood that the biggest aperture was the most effective for me and that there was a certain distance from camera to subject (roughly 7 feet) that gave the most defined Bokeh effect, I started to really enjoy it.
Any handy tips for those just getting their hands on it for the first time?
I found it easier to work with still subjects.
We know you recently had a chance to shoot some portraits with an antique Petzval lens at the Penumbra Foundation. How do the experiences compare?
People are dying to talk to you when you are carrying around a brass lens.
The 8" X 10" camera at Penumbra seems to put a spell on people. They are very respectful of it because of its age and beautiful craftsmanship. It’s as though they are in the presence of greatness.
Which shot with this lens would you say is your favorite and why?
I like the photo of Chester in front of his Christmas tree. He’s perfectly sharp and the tree looks as though it’s swirling behind him.
Are there any hidden gems in the city that you find yourself photographing regularly?
I love photographing people at events so I gravitate towards parades and contests of which there are many.
And lastly, what’s the strangest, funniest, hands-down most fantastic or unusual photographic encounter you’ve ever had?
I was photographing Dennis Hopper for my first book, “No Place Like Home.” He had a pie shaped bathtub, so he offered to buy some bubble bath so he wouldn’t appear naked in the picture.
I remember being really touched that he didn’t want me to feel uncomfortable.