Thursday, May 12, 2005
NEW YORK They remember none of it. Not the lady with the camera, arranging them by a wall at the Knights of Columbus hall in their home town of Roselle, N.J. Not the chocolate cake they had just finished, which is very faintly visible in the picture at the creases of their lips. The Wade sisters, as they were known before they each married, recall nothing about the day they gazed into the lens of Diane Arbus and became part of American photographic history. Unless you count the dresses.
"We still have them," says Colleen.
"Our mother made them," says Cathleen. "They look black in the photograph but they're actually green."
They were 7 years old in 1967, when Arbus found the girls at a Christmas party for local twins and triplets. Nobody is quite sure how Arbus heard about the gathering, but a few parents obliged when she asked their children to pose. Which is how the Wade sisters wound up on a sidewalk, standing close enough to seem joined at the shoulder, their expression a kind of spectral blank.
It would become one of the most famous photographs of the era's most compelling photographer. Arbus killed herself in 1971, at the age of 48, leaving behind a gallery of characters -- some of them spooky, some of them bizarre, all of them vaguely tragic -- who won't go away. There's a retrospective of her work called "Revelations" now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and it's a menagerie of weirdos we seem to have known all our lives: those two men waltzing at a drag ball, that Mexican dwarf, the grimacing kid with a toy grenade.
They've been handed a peculiar kind of celebrity, the kind you don't ask for and certainly don't expect. One day you're minding your business, the next day you're immortalized in perpetuity beside "Nudist lady with swan sunglasses, Pa. 1965," or "Transvestite at a drag ball, N.Y.C. 1970."
What's it like to land in this hallowed collection of "freaks," as Arbus once referred to her subjects? It depends on which "freak" you ask, it turns out. The great recurring theme of Arbus's work is a sense of otherness, and if you talk to a few of her subjects you realize that in some cases she discovered that otherness in people and then committed it to film, and in other cases she somehow imposed it.
"We thought it was the worst likeness of the twins we'd ever seen," whispers Bob Wade, the girls' father. He and his daughters are visiting the Met exhibit one recent afternoon and at the moment are standing a few feet from "Identical twins, Roselle, N.J. 1967," the image that is clearly the star of this show. It's featured on the publicity photo and there's a bench nearby so visitors can sit and stare.
"I mean it resembles them," Wade continues. "But we've always been baffled that she made them look ghostly. None of the other pictures we have of them looks anything like this."
The Family Album
Tracking down the people Arbus photographed is tricky because the executors of her estate won't disclose the names of her subjects. But the identities of a few are known because they stepped forward at some point and said, "That's me." Others are known because Arbus for years had a lucrative sideline shooting family portraits, and some of those subjects have provided copies of the photos, along with their names, to museums.
That is why it's possible to identify Marcella Matthaei, who as an 11-year-old stood and glowered at Arbus in December of 1969, yielding a memorable study in a brooding adolescence. Marcella's mother had heard about the photographer through a friend who'd curated some high-profile museum shows, one of which included Arbus's work. In need of a professional for an annual family shoot, Gay Matthaei hired Arbus, which seems either bold or insane, depending on your point of view. But the Matthaeis were arty people, uninterested in conventional studio stuff, and Gay had seen the photo of the Wade sisters and thought it was a stunner.
"I really liked it," she says. "I'm an identical twin and I understood the photo she took of those little girls. I'd been posed with my twin my whole life."