Were it not for New York street photographer Lisette Model, there may never have been the Diane Arbus we know today. And without Arbus (1923–1971), there would never have been the riveting Identical Twins, Cathleen and Colleen, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967. A successful fashion photographer by the time she became Model’s student at the New School in the mid-1950s, Arbus followed her teacher’s advice to focus on personal pictures. From then on, she captured seniors on the street, transvestites, muscle men, midgets, asylum inmates and dominatrixes, as well as children and families.

Her subjects range from spooky to bizarre or funny, and most are slightly tragic. All are photographed head-on and often with a flash, yet none of her subjects – even those who are naked – shows any resistance to Arbus’s insistent gaze. Such was the case for Cathleen and Colleen Wade, whom Arbus met with their parents at a twins-and-triplets Christmas party at the Knights of Columbus hall in Roselle. One smiles, the other frowns a little, and the pair exudes the mix of innocence and menace Arbus often saw, and made us see, in children. Included in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1967 New Documents exhibition, Identical Twins immediately became emblematic of Arbus’s work.

 

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