Diane Arbus' Photos and the Stories Behind them

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Thirty-seven years ago today, Diane Arbus committed suicide in her New York City apartment by ingesting barbiturates and then slitting her wrists. She was only 48. Most people are familiar with the famed photographer's work, especially her photographs of "freaks," but few know the stories behind those iconic images. So today, we'll take a look at the people on the other side of Arbus' lens.

1. Arbus' "Identical twins, Roselle, N.J. 1967" has captured imaginations and inspired other creepy twin images, like the twins in The Shining. But the Wade twins are far from creepy; the Arbus photo is a bit of an anomaly. Their parents "thought it was the worst likeness of the twins [they'd] ever seen." Arbus found the girls at a Knights of Columbus hall during a Christmas party for twins and triplets, though no one's quite sure how the photographer knew about the event. Today, the image is the tenth most expensive photograph and the girls are still recognized, especially at Arbus exhibitions. Lucky for them, they own the original, which their dad remarks is "their 401(k)."

Giant.jpg2. In "Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, NY, 1970," Arbus captured Eddie Carmel crammed into his parents' living room. Carmel was actually normal height all through his childhood. As a teen, though, he began to grow uncontrollably as a result of acromegaly. The condition, then incurable, was caused by a tumor that had developed on Carmel's pituitary gland. He grew to be 8'9" and received some fame for his condition, starring in B-movies, putting out two 45 records, and appearing in the Ringling Brothers Circus as "The Tallest Man on Earth." He died at age 36, only two years after Arbus took his photo.

HandGrenade.jpg3. Colin Wood, the son of tennis player Sidney Wood, was caught "in a moment of exasperation" by Arbus, becoming one of her most recognizable subjects as "Child with toy hand grenade in Central Park, New York City (1962)." Wood, who only learned of his notoriety at age 14, hated the image during his youth, especially after a classmate photocopied it and plastered it around school. Now, he simply thinks of it as a great conversation starter. To him, Arbus "captured the loneliness of everyone. It's all people who want to connect but don't know how to connect." He believes that's also how she felt about herself.

Baby.jpg4. "A very young baby, NYC 1968" is somewhat unremarkable compared to other Arbus photographs, but the back story is just as interesting. The photograph was one of several Arbus took of babies for Harper's Bazaar in 1968. The baby in question is Anderson Cooper, current CNN correspondent and son of Gloria Vanderbilt. Prior to publication, an editor called Vanderbilt to make sure she didn't mind the printing of her son's name with the photograph. They were worried she might "find the picture a little disturbing." She gave the okay, and today it hangs in the bedroom of Cooper, who thinks it's "great."

Click on the images to see larger versions.

Fans of Diane Arbus should check out the Arbus photos at Christie's; the books Hubert's Freaks (Gregory Gibson), Diane Arbus: Revelations, and Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph; this YouTube tribute; All Things Considered's piece on "The Jewish Giant"; and Present at the Creation's piece on "Identical Twins".

"Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at feelartagain@gmail.com with artist suggestions or details of current exhibitions. Thanks to reader Gillian for suggesting Diane Arbus.

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