Looking Back

Amy Arbus

July 1, 2024

We asked Amy Arbus to tell us about a picture that means something to her, and why. The circus performers, acrobats, and dancers in Arbus’s latest photographs perform remarkable feats of flexibility, strength, and daring. Often set against a deep black background, as if they’re floating in space, her subjects soar through the air, balance in formations, hold each other aloft, and twist their toned bodies into astonishing shapes and poses. Arbus’s interest in photographing trapeze artists, contortionists, hoop divers, and burlesque dancers was sparked when a friend took her to a circus at a state fair in 2023, and she kept going, photographing performers with the Fly By Night Dance Theater, the Hook, and Circus Vazquez, among other companies. A selection of these photographs is on view at The Schoolhouse Gallery in Provincetown, MA, through July 16. On August 24, work from the series goes on view at Mitchell Giddings Fine Arts in Brattleboro, VT, until October 6. 

On the cover of Sylvia Plachy’s first book, Unguided Tour (Aperture, 1990), is a photograph of a horse swimming in desperation. All we can see is her head, wild eyes, clenched teeth, and the water engulfing her. The title, Night Mare, is a double entendre, and perhaps a metaphor for Sylvia’s life as a child. When she was 13, she escaped the Hungarian revolution, hidden in a farm cart. In the foreword to Unguided Tour, she writes, “Which is worse, the sadness of a loss or the emptiness of not remembering? Losses and gains, like waves, toss you until the big one comes along with the power to stun, to leave you speechless and driven to find a voice that will release the pain.”

Plachy has undeniably found her voice with photography. She lives and works in New York City and is hardly ever seen without many cameras, in different shapes and sizes, draped around her neck. Like a good journalist, she finds all subjects intriguing. Like a great artist, she is always experimenting and eager to greet the happy accident. Her pictures can be loud, fast, gritty, joyous, quiet, sweet, specific, iconic, or ironic. They might be dark, both visually and emotionally. But most startlingly, and admirably, she can be funny. At the beginning of Unguided Tour we come upon Visitor (1985). In it we see a chimp on the roof of a car looking through the window at the driver. After all, who is looking at who? In Rhino Video (1981), we see a rhinoceros sticking its nose out of a doorway as two videographers walk away. It is a joke about photographers. No matter how intriguing a subject is, we are always looking for the next best thing. Being funny photographically is beyond reach for many of us, but Plachy’s pictures can even make us laugh at ourselves.