The Christmas story behind this Diane Arbus photograph

Why did this Great Woman Artist shoot these twins at a Christmas party? And how did she make them look so mysterious?
Identical twins, Roselle,  N.J., 1966, by Diane Arbus as featured in Great <s>Women</s> Artists
Identical twins, Roselle, N.J., 1966, by Diane Arbus as featured in Great Women Artists

Christmas is a time for good cheer, rather than a good scare, so it is perhaps testament to one of the 20th century’s greatest photographers, that a kids’ Christmas party could be the source material for one of the most unusual photographs ever printed.

As our new book Great Women Artists explains, the photographer, Diane Arbus, got her first camera in 1941. “She attended a brief technical course with [acclaimed portrait and architectural photographer] Berenice Abbott then started a fashion photography studio with her new husband, Allan, where she provided art direction and he took the photographs,” explains our new book. “In 1956, Arbus quit the studio and began studying with Lisette Model, known for her strange and intense street photography. Arbus, too, was fascinated by the uncanny within the everyday. She photographed nudists, transvestites, circus performers, giants and, as seen here, identical twins.”

It’s unclear how Arbus came across the New Jersey Christmas party for twins and triplets where she took this photograph. In a 2005 article the sitters, Cathleen and Colleen Wade certainly didn’t recall the encounter with Arbus as being especially unusual.

"The only recollection I have of her is that I mistakenly thought she was Joan Baez," Marcella told the Washington Post’s reporter, David Segal. “She was slender and pretty and my father had a Joan Baez album. I thought it was her."


Great <s>Women</s> Artists

Nevertheless, the picture remains one of the 20th century’s best-known photo portraits, and may well have inspired one of the best-known horror movie images: the identical Grady daughters from the Stanley Kubrick film, The Shining, who reappear in the 2019 sequel, Doctor Sleep.

Arbus committed suicide in 1971, nine years before Kubrick’s movie reached the cinemas, though this image and many others live on – a seasonal reminder of the artist’s power. For more on Arbus and many others order a copy of  Great Women Artists here. featuring more than 400 artists from more than 50 countries and spanning 500 years of creativity, each artist is represented by a key artwork and short text. This essential volume reveals a parallel yet equally engaging history of art for an age that champions a greater diversity of voices. Order your copy of Great Women Artists here.

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Phaidon is the premier global publisher of the creative arts with over 1,500 titles in print. We work with the world's most influential artists, chefs, writers and thinkers to produce innovative books on art, photography, design, architecture, fashion, food and travel, and illustrated books for children. Phaidon is headquartered in London and New York City.
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