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...
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.”
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They were 7 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 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. A retrospective of her work, “Revelations,” is 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. The great recurring theme of Arbus’ 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.
Kudos from Kubrick
“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, featured on the publicity photo.
“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.”
Arbus’ subjects seem to exist in another dimension. She gave these two an otherworldly aura. Director Stanley Kubrick paid homage to this mix of innocence and menace in “The Shining.” Twin girls, in matching dresses, turn up as ghosts, harbingers of a gory finale.
Tracking down the people Arbus photographed is tricky because the executors of her estate won’t disclose the names. But the identities of a few are known because they stepped forward at some point and said, “That’s me.” Too, 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.
At least they knew they were being photographed. Others had no idea. Like the infant in “A very young baby, N.Y.C. 1968,” one of the images stopping the crowd at the Met. The baby’s eyes are closed, lips a little drooly. One critic likened it to a death mask.
The weirdest part, it turns out, isn’t what the infant looks like. It’s who it is: CNN anchorman Anderson Cooper.
“I have it in my bedroom,” Cooper says by phone. “I think it’s great.”
Cooper’s mom is Gloria Vanderbilt, the socialite turned denim jeans spokeswoman turned memoirist. Then married to author Wyatt Emory Cooper, she was friends with Arbus, who in 1968 was looking for babies to photograph for a series. When Arbus sent the images to Harper’s Bazaar, an editor called Vanderbilt with a question: Are you sure it’s OK to put your son’s name on this photo?
“They were worried that my mother might find the picture a little disturbing,” Cooper says. “My mother was stunned.” Publish his name, she said.
“I heard that Elton John sold me” — by this he means a copy of “A very young baby” — “at auction recently, and I was a little offended by that, frankly,” Cooper says, laughing. He realizes why some might find the image unsettling, but he’s amused by it and kind of thrilled to be in a museum.
His one request: “Just make it really clear to people that I’m not the kid with the grenade.”
The kid with the grenade
That would be Colin Wood, now 50 and an insurance agent in Glendale, Calif. Wood has no memory of running into Arbus, at 7, in Central Park. But he remembers that H.M.S. Pinafore outfit, and he recalls the type of toy grenade he is clutching so spasmodically in that picture. As fake weapons go, he recalls, they were pretty annoying because they’d pop almost as soon as you threw them. “You couldn’t throw it somewhere and duck,” he says.
Look at the other shots of Wood in that roll, which are included in the book version of “Revelations,” and he comes across as a fairly typical kid, mugging for the camera. His guess is that after a few shots, he’d had enough. Or perhaps Arbus goaded him to give her something more.
“I’m sure that photo was a collaboration,” he says. “I didn’t pose like that unless asked. I think I was imitating a face I’d seen in war movies, which I loved watching at the time.”
Wood says he was a hyperactive child, and there’s a slightly manic pace to his speech today. He first learned of his notoriety at 14, he explains, after his stepsister spotted the image in a book. Then a prep-school classmate found a copy and, as a practical joke, posted Xeroxes of it all over campus. Wood was mortified.
He remembers feeling angry at Arbus for “making fun of a skinny kid with a sailor suit.” But today he thinks of the image as one of the great conversation pieces of all time. And Arbus clearly fascinates him. He riffs about her for a good 15 minutes.
“She catches me in a moment of exasperation. It’s true, I was exasperated. My parents had divorced and there was a general feeling of loneliness, a sense of being abandoned. I was just exploding. She saw that and it’s like … commiseration. She captured the loneliness of everyone. It’s all people who want to connect but don’t know how to connect. And I think that’s how she felt about herself. She felt damaged and she hoped that by wallowing in that feeling, through photography, she could transcend herself.”
There’s a gift shop near the Met, and by the time the Wade sisters get there, people have figured out who they are. Maybe it’s their eyes, which are still a startling bright blue and appear in the photograph to be glowing. Or maybe it’s their lime-green jackets and black slacks, nearly matching outfits that shout their twinness. A cashier notices them first, then others ask them to sign their posters.
Shrugging it off
By their own accounts, they have lived rather conventional lives. They are both married working mothers, still very close and a little shy. They’re amused by this photo, maybe a little proud of it, too. But they’ve never reflected on it much and, pressed with questions like “Does this capture something about you?” or “Can you remember being this little girl?” they just shrug.
“It reminds me of my daughter,” says Cathleen.
“Somebody called me and told me the twins were on the cover of the Village Voice,” their dad says. Bob Wade is describing the day he learned about “Identical twins.” This was in 1972, to the best of his recollection, as the Museum of Modern Art put together an Arbus exhibit. “I told my wife, ‘I didn’t sign anything.’ She said, ‘Uh, I did.’ ”
Which is good. A copy of “Identical twins” sold last year for nearly $500,000, and when Diane Arbus mailed the Wades that release form, she sent along something else: an original print of the photo.
“I’ve stashed that one away,” Wade says, grinning. Then he nods toward his daughters. “That’s their 401(k).”