Jan Long Collins had been looking after our 3-year-old daughter for a year when I realized I didn’t know her last name. To us, she was just Jan — a spirited, smart, affectionate woman in her late 50s who lived, conveniently, around the corner. Always accommodating, but ready to throw fire at anyone who crossed her. In her eyes, an occasional gleam of mayhem. And, oh, a natural with kids.
She lived, then as now, with her partner, Simon Ritt, a member of the country rock band The Darlings, in a house filled with books, magazines, and art. Hanging on the walls were versions of pictures by Matisse, de Lempicka, and Picasso that she had painted herself.
Often, around 5 o’clock, when I went to pick up my daughter, I would stay to talk. And I’d notice amid the floor-to-ceiling salon-style hang some glamorous photographs of Jan in her younger years. Beautiful, feline eyes. Lots of attitude. Cool clothes. Gritty locations.
Even so, it took me an embarrassingly long time to work out that my daughter’s baby sitter had been a famous photographer’s muse. And when I did, I was surprised to uncover a story that opened out not only onto the birth of street fashion photography and Boston’s punk rock scene, but a slice of the 1980s every bit as pungent as the art in the ICA’s current survey, “This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s.”
Rewind 30-plus years. It’s 1979. Jan Long has a job at Goods Department Store in Harvard Square. The place is patterned after a 1930s store with vintage mannequins and counters. Jan is working in women’s clothing on the second floor.
There’s something about her that people notice. She’s mercurial. Sexy. Intimidating.
Enter Amy Arbus.
In her mid-20s, Arbus is a photographer who’s still getting used to wielding a camera. Until recently, she’s resisted taking up the medium, for understandable reasons: Both her parents had worked as photographers. Her mother, Diane Arbus, who became one of the most famous photographers of the 20th century, committed suicide in 1971, at 48. Her father, Allan Arbus, had been Diane’s partner in a commercial photography business. By the time the couple had formally divorced in 1969, he had given up photography and turned to acting, where he gained renown for playing the role of psychiatrist Dr. Sidney Freedman in the TV show “M*A*S*H.”
When Amy does finally pick up a camera, it just somehow feels right.
She comes into Goods, her favorite store for clothes, and sees Long. The next time she comes in, and each time after that, Long looks totally different.
Beguiled, Arbus approaches.
“I said something about liking her look and wanting to work with her,” recalls Arbus in a phone conversation.
Long had moved to Boston from Provincetown two years earlier. In P-town, then in its bohemian heyday, “you could let your flag fly free,” she says. “If I wanted to go down the street with bells on my toes and a bone through my nose, then, you know, more is the better.”
In Boston, she wasn’t prepared for how “sewn-up tight” people are. “If I went out in one of my little outfits that in Provincetown would have brought cheers, people here would be crossing to the other side of the street.”
It wasn’t just Long’s clothes that attracted Arbus’s attention, though.
“I was just really impressed with her,” she recalls. “I’ve always been interested in androgyny. Jan’s a gorgeous woman, and she’s incredibly feminine in the way she acts. But she can also look like a boy. She doesn’t have big hips or boobs, and her short haircut could be boyish if she wanted it to be.”
Jan Long Collins, 61, remains bemused about the impact she had, not just on Arbus but on others. “I’ve never got what people are on about.”
The two young women took to working together on Sundays over a period of about six months. Arbus would take Long out to a different location each time. On the first occasion, she chose a “filthy bar” — with a hot pink neon sign. It was dusk, and Arbus was nervous about the combination of dimming light and bright neon. “I was just learning technique in those days,” she says.
Jan, in her own words, was “kind of looking nasty.” She was wearing blue jeans, sexy Charles Jourdan high heels, “and a silk T-shirt that you can totally see my nipples.” Also, an old man’s overcoat and a scarf. She slicked her hair back with Vaseline.
When it came to her outfits, says Arbus, Long was always inventive. The photographs, she says, were collaborative. “And I loved that. We were both coming up with ideas, working together.”
Goods, where Jan worked, was owned by Donald Levy, who had just established Stuff magazine in Boston. The idea with Stuff was that you could pay $100 and get a page of the magazine to yourself. You could do anything with it. (“What we were looking for was creativity in the design of the page,” explains Levy, who now owns the Deluxe Town Diner in Watertown.) You then received 100 free copies.
Levy had learned about Arbus’s photographs of Long. Eager to generate interest in Stuff, he offered up a free page in the magazine. Images of Long were in Stuff’s first issue, and eight subsequent ones.
People responded strongly to the photos. A friend of Long’s spotted one of them hanging in a dorm at Harvard University. Long herself recalls a party where three photographs of her, torn from Stuff, were pasted to a wall, and people were standing around talking about how sexy she was.
Some were intimidated. There was something daunting about the person depicted in these images. A girl working at Goods downstairs from Long cried when she was asked to work in the same department.
Everyone who met Long, says Arbus, took notice. For the cover of the ninth issue of Stuff, Ken Brown, a local artist and photographer, snapped Long in a tutu standing insouciantly in front of a dinosaur at a miniature golf course by Route 1 in Saugus.
“I was jealous of her other collaborators,” admits Arbus. “I didn’t want her to have as much fun with other people!”
Jan admits to being “a wicked ham.” But she also believes her posing had an aspect of honesty that might have drawn people in.
“A lot of what punk was about was attitude,” she says. “Projecting ‘I’m fed-up and I want things to change.’ It was a breath of fresh air, it was a release. It was a license to be yourself.”
Through Arbus, Long got involved in the punk rock scene, and for a while became a kind of local “It girl.” A gossip column in the Boston Phoenix in 1979 referred to her as “a human conversation piece,” a “gutsy, ubiquitous model who is THIS year’s person to invite to your very first attempt at staging [an] ultra-chic Hub party.” “Completely punked out or utterly elegant,” it concluded, “she’s ALWAYS dressed to kill.”
Arbus, meanwhile, left Boston and moved to New York, where she got a job two years later — partly on the strength of her photographs of Long — taking photographs of New Yorkers for the Village Voice. These appeared in a regular column called “On the Street.” (The title was later adopted by The New York Times for Bill Cunningham’s column documenting street fashions.)
The Village Voice “On the Street” column, which appeared every six weeks, was one of the earliest outlets for street fashion photography, a genre that didn’t really come into its own until the 1990s.
“People would get dressed up and just hang around waiting for [Amy] to come by in the hopes that they would get in the Voice,” remembers Jan.
In 1980, at the RAT, Kenmore Square’s infamous Rathskellar, Long met Peter Collins, bass player with the Peter Dayton Band, as they competed in the Rumble, Boston’s annual Battle of the Bands. Collins lived in New York, so he and Jan moved to the East Village. They married in February 1981.
Jan didn’t see a lot of Arbus in New York. But she did pose for one fabulous photograph that made it into “On the Street” and later into Arbus’s 2006 book, “On the Street: 1980-1990.”
In the photograph, she is standing on a sidewalk outside Cooper Union in the East Village wearing a vintage, emerald green boy’s sharkskin suit, a rust-colored shirt, a green “continental” tie with a pearl snap, and buckle boots. The photograph is in black and white so you don’t see all these colors. But you do notice a surprising little protuberance above Jan’s waist.
She was three months pregnant. In fact, although she didn’t know it at the time, she was pregnant with twins.
She returned to Boston soon after.
Twenty-six years after that photograph by Cooper Union was taken, Arbus and film director John Spellos had the idea of making a “Where are they now?”-style documentary about Arbus’s “On the Street.” They set out to track down the subjects who had appeared in it.
They couldn’t find Long, though. Arbus knew she had married but couldn’t remember her married name.
In late 2006, Long — now Jan Collins — read a review of the book “On the Street” and ordered it on Amazon.
“I was really glad I was sitting down when I opened it,” she recalls, “because I’m on Page 37 — and really, it just took my breath away!”
Collins spent several days telling her three black cats she was famous, and then decided to write a customer review of the book on Amazon.
“I wrote this nutty review. I said: ‘I’m Page 37. My cats are so sick of hearing me say, ‘Did you know I’m in a book?!’ I was so excited I was afraid I was going to start knocking people over!”
Arbus saw the review. She now had a way to track Collins down, and the next thing Jan knew she was on a train to New York. Arbus put her up in a hotel and took her out to dinner. (“There was a lot to talk about,” says Collins.) The next day she was interviewed for the film, and photographed in the same, Page 37 location.
According to Collins, Arbus’s photographs were always exactly what she, herself, was going for.
“They were not the ones that made me look good. They made me look striking, but not pretty.” Like most people, Collins says she prefers looking pretty; but she didn’t mind because she instinctively understood what Arbus was trying to do.
“We had an unspoken understanding that I was more interested in the intensity of her emotions than in flattering her,” says Arbus. Collaborating with someone, she says, you forge “a special kind of friendship. It’s very intense, very exciting, very tight.”
Today, Collins lives a modest life, much of it spent looking after children. But, when the occasion calls for it, she still dresses with that dizzying combination of ostentation and cool that makes her the one everybody whispers about. Looking back through a floppy folder of clippings and photographs, she notes that she earned no more than about $70 posing for the whole lot.
“I’ve never had ambition. I’m a person that just hangs back and if someone says, ‘I’m doing something, do you want to be in it?’ I say sure. That’s how stuff happens to me. I don’t go after anything. I just go around being myself, and people, for some reason, pick up on it.”
My daughter, now 6, still keeps a photo of herself with Jan, smiling broadly, by her bed.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.