Diane Arbus Major Force in Photography

Diane Arbus Major Force in Photography

LiveAuctionTalk.com:  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Christie’s Images LTD.

At a party one night at a Knights of Columbus hall in Roselle, N.J., photographer Diane Arbus ran into identical twin girls Colleen and Cathleen Wade.  She knew right away they would be perfect subjects for her camera. It was obvious the dark dresses they wore with their large, flat white collars, and cuffs were homemade.

Twins were a paradox for Diane.  They were so alike yet so different, opposite sides of the same coin, suggesting the light and dark side of human beings.

The twins looked like duplicates dressed in their Sunday best all the way down to their white knee socks and the two bobby pins holding their matching white headbands in place. The main difference was their facial expressions. 

There is more going on here than first meets the eye.   

“I thought how ordinary are a charming pair of twins,” Diane said.  “In some societies twins are taboo, an aberration.”   

Twins were a paradox for Diane.  They were so alike yet so different, opposite sides of the same coin, suggesting the light and dark side of human beings.

What must it be like to live in a body that looks so much like another body?  This was the question Diane grappled with over and over again as she photographed twins.  She photographed young twins, elderly twins, and twins married to twins.  Each photo seemed to ask the same question.  How do you create a separate identity when the world sees you the same?

The girls pictured stare directly into the camera as though they’re staring back at you.  They become an eerie study in human identity—same but different.  Looking closer the differences in the image include the hems in the girl’s dresses and their stockings.

“Yet those subtle variations help bring life to the portrait, in the way that an orchestra conductor’s tiny modulations enhance the performance of a symphony, the overall impression (still) remains that the girls are identically dressed,” Diane said.

In the end the twins pictured in the 1967 photo became Diane’s most famous photograph.

She was upset when the image appeared at an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art and the twin’s parents protested that it was distorted and tried to stop the photo from being reproduced elsewhere because they didn’t want their daughters exploited.  They also disliked the print.

“We thought it was the worst likeness of the twins we’d ever seen,” they said. 

Diane was disappointed with the reaction but stood by her work. 

She also liked to photograph nudists, disabled adults, female impersonators, and dwarfs.  She created immediacy with these subjects making them impossible to forget.

Diane said these particular subjects disclosed more of themselves in everyday life than the typical person and she often spent weeks and sometimes years getting to know them so they would drop their guard.

“I photograph some kind of generalized human being, everybody’ll recognize.  It’ll be like what they used to call the common man or something,” she said. 

Diane’s work remains a major force in contemporary photography and her suicide in 1971 at age 48 transformed her into a legend.

On April 6, Christie’s offered a selection of Diane Arbus photos in its Yamakawa Collection auction.  Here are some current values.

Diane Arbus Photographs

Untitled; gelatin silver print; two disabled girls; 197071; signed, titled, dated and numbered 5/75 in ink by daughter Doon Arbus; 14 1/2 inches by 14 ¾ inches image size;  $6,000.

Tattooed Man at Carnival; gelatin silver print; printed 1973; signed by Doon Arbus; 14 inches by 14 ¼ inches image size;  $13,750.  

Box of ten gelatin silver prints; including identical twins; young man in curlers; young family in Brooklyn; a Jewish giant; Xmas tree in living room; patriotic boy with straw hat; retired man and wife at home in nudist camp; Mexican dwarf; family on the lawn one Sunday; senior citizens dance; published 1970; signed, titled, dated and numbered 25/50 in ink by Doon Arbus; 14 ¾ inches by 14 ¾ inches approximate;  $792,500.   

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her LiveAuctionTalk.com website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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