It was the era of boom bap, of Metro Pictures, The Tunnel and a CIA-floated sea of white rocks. It was glamorous and dangerous, striving and subversive: The ’80s were excessive in a way that perhaps most closely paralleled the Gilded Age (and prognosticated our own moment). These days, those Drakkar Noir-scented nights are as much fodder for nostalgia as the 1920s are. But instead of beads and bobs, the ’80s were marked by saturated colors, aspirational dressing and lots of flash.
In a 2016 New York Times article, writer Jon Carmanica described the Brooklyn-based shoplifting crew Lo Lifes’ obsession with fashion in terms that anticipated the current lexicon around lifestyle branding: “the laserlike focus on brand, the lifestyle aspiration, the subversion.” The Lo Lifes were fixated on Ralph Lauren’s Polo brand and would descend on department stores like Bloomingdale’s en masse to, ahem, acquire additions to their collections.
That aesthetic, of oversized knit sweaters emblazoned with teddy bears and crests that meant nothing, of private schools, rugby shirts and polo ponies defined the ’80s, a decade that rolled in on scavenged bicycles and rolled out on Audi 100s. But everything is cyclical. Thus, perhaps the sanest response to our current avaricious, lying-endorsed cultural moment is to cast an eye backward to another shadowy yet undeniably exciting time.
Photographers Anh Pham, Tenny Rudolph and Khalil Osborne are planning an end-of-year throwback, Happy Endings, New Beginnings, Prom + Art Show, celebrating their art and the ’80/’90s aesthetic. It’s a nostalgia trip for folks who weren’t born during the first iteration of trickle-down economics. (Donald Trump was on the scene then, and he was as slimy and unconcerned with the law then as he is today.) Pham explains that she’s interested in the fashion and styles of that much-mythologized era because she’s seeking a kind of “authenticity” she feels is lacking in our current hyper-commodified culture. It’s a culture that extends to universities—she’s currently a senior in communications at University of North Florida. “I didn’t fit into the college system,” she said.
Of her fascination with the Me Decade and its trappings, Pham reflected, “They’re nostalgic, different and unique … things that are almost tacky but get to fashion. These items are so authentic and unique [that] all these fast fashion clothing brands try to mimic the style. It also brings back a nostalgia for my childhood, even though I wasn’t born in the ’80s. And in the media, the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s are portrayed as so flashy, so funky with a lot of hair and glitter; people were very extra. I really like that. It breaks away from this mold of how we are supposed to feel and look. It was a very expressive time.”
Like Pham, Rudolph and Osborne also adopt the language of fashion: Rudolph’s photos channel a vibe that’s equal parts snapshot and Oliviero Toscani (the creator of the iconic United Colors of Benetton campaign), while Osborne’s images take cues from a pared-down aesthetic that recalls Prada’s early palette, with nods to street photography.
Pham came to photography through an elective course, and about that same time she stumbled into a small vintage clothing booth at the flea market and slowly developed a company she calls Anharchy Official. She thrifts and remixes clothing as her attempt to “push back against big box fashion.” That idea of “big box fashion” is itself a vehicle for what seems to really be at the core of her work, a resistance to commodity and capitalism. Her most recent suite of works (on view during Prom), tackle the idea of instant gratification via the vehicle of elaborately staged portraits. In terms of reference, the pieces in How to Be a Butterfly in a Day, take cues from photographers like David LaChapelle and Tyler Shields—though, unlike LaChapelle, Pham does not build elaborate sets, nor does she take refuge from the world in a nudist colony.
One of the most arresting images in the Butterfly series is a photograph of a pink-haired model seemingly consuming and crying little tiny people. Pham does all of the hair, makeup and styling in her images, exercising almost total creative control. In her artist’s statement, the photographer addresses this as an illustration of the idea that as a consumerist society, we are ingesting one another and therefore ourselves. (Soylent Green is people, after all.) As a concept, it’s one that has seen purchase in the works of artists like Duane Hanson; ideologically, it leans toward Oswald Spengler’s ideas on America—specifically, our lack of emotional depth.
Yet, even as she identifies the hollow mediocrity of materialism, Pham doesn’t have a huge grasp of the history of photography or art. Hers is a more intuitive approach. She cites ’80s icons David Bowie, Andy Warhol and Prince as inspirations, but it seems safe to say that her understanding and interest in the much ballyhoo’d decade comes from popular culture itself. In that, it is an object lesson in how influential and lasting the ethos of the 1980s, its taste and culture-makers have been.
In 2018 (soon to be ’19), we have things like influencers and personal brands, a culture sprung from the spectacle society of the Reagan years. But there is nostalgia, too, for a time when, though greed was good, it was also acknowledged as (somewhat) camp, and (seemingly) easier to subvert. Maybe it’s because 40 years ago—as a culture—we had a little more humor about ourselves and weren’t so hungry to turn quirks into brands.