Sunday, September 28, 2014

Diane Arbus and Spooky Twins

Inspired by a current exhibit at the Worcester Art Museum called "Perfectly Strange", which features Diane Arbus's famous photograph of "Identical Twins, Roselle, NJ 1967", I am re-posting an essay I wrote four years ago which has become one of the most popular on "A Rolling Crone".  (A list of other essays about historic photos is at right.)  It will be one of the chapters in my forthcoming book  about antique photographs, tentatively titled "Unlocking the Secrets of Our Earliest Photographs." 

Long before she killed herself in 1971 at the age of 48, (pills, slashed wrists, found in the bathtub two days later), the photographer Diane Arbus told a friend she was afraid that she would be remembered simply as “the photographer of freaks.”

Today that’s exactly how she is remembered for her searing, macabre photographs of “deviant and marginal people (dwarfs, giants, transvestites, nudists, circus performers) or else of people whose normality seems ugly or surreal,” as one biographer described her favorite subjects.

But one of her most famous photographs (on the left above) is not of circus freaks or mentally challenged people, but of identical twin girls taken in Roselle, N.J. in 1967.

This eerie photograph of young sisters Cathleen and Colleen Wade has been copied and echoed many times—including in Stanley Kubrick’s film ‘”The Shining” with its twin girl ghosts. In fact there’s a TV commercial on right now (for kitchen appliances) with a pair of similar sinister girls.

A print of Arbus’s twins was sold at auction for $478,000 in 2004 and a couple of months ago I saw another one at the AIPAD photography show in New York that was priced at around $275,000 for a tiny print with Arbus’s notes on the back.

Let’s face it, there’s something intrinsically spooky about twins—especially identical twins—because it’s shocking to see the same individual, the same face, doubled and standing side by side. Maybe that’s why I (and many other collectors) love to find vintage photographic images of twins. They always seem to look like something out of Stephen King.

The 1/6 plate daguerreotype, #1, that I have above next to the Arbus twins, is my favorite dag ever. In my opinion it’s just as good – if not better -- than the Arbus image. The two little girls, who were photographed in the 1840’s or 1850’s, look amazingly like the twins from New Jersey. Compare the faces of the girls on the left in each photo.

The stern young ladies in image #1 are each holding a daguerreotype case inlaid with mother of pearl, and they wear identical gold-tinted pendents and dresses.

(In vintage photos it’s very common for siblings—not just twins -- to be dressed alike, because Mom would buy a long length of fabric and then the dressmaker would come around to stitch up clothing for all the kids from the same bolt of cloth.)

These are some of my prize twin images—all of them spooky. In the early days of photography, people were not only intimidated by this modern invention, they were warned not to move—certainly not to smile—because it would blur the image. Children were often strapped into a chair with their heads in a brace. No wonder they often look terrified!

(Click on the photos to make them bigger.)

Images 1 , 2, 3, 4 and 5 above are all daguerreotypes—the very earliest photographic process. Don’t you love the dour sisters in the checkerboard dresses in #3 (not a flattering pattern!) and next to them the long-faced girls in plaid. The sisters in image 5 I suspect, because of their somber clothing and jewelry, may be in mourning.

The girls holding books in image 6 are not identical, but the men in image 7 are mirror images of each other. I love how their top-knots curl in opposite directions. (Six and 7 are ambrotypes—negative images on glass—popular from 1854 to 1865.) People were always worried about how to pose their hands in these early days, and the photographer would arrange hands awkwardly like the ones you see here.

The two women in image 9 may not be twins, or even sisters, but I cherish them because they are feminists from the mid-1800’s! Written in the case behind their daguerreotype is this: “Mary, you and my self are still left single/ while others are double and full of trouble. Your KPL”

Photos 11 to 14 are tintypes, which became popular during the Civil War and continued into the 1900’s. The girls in 11 and the boys in 12 have high button shoes, and the ladies in #14, in ruffled skirts, are posed in a photographer’s studio. Check out the bathing beauties in #13, on a holiday at the seashore (but posed in front of a painted canvas background.)

The toddlers in # 15 are boy/girl twins. (Boys wore dresses until after age 5.) Their mother has written on the back of the cabinet card “Twins. Left, Louise Bertha Inez Forte. Right Louis Bertrand Forte. Born June 13th, 1893 at 2 p.m. in West Newton. Louis was born 5 minutes after Louise.”

An equally helpful relative noted the names of the young flappers in image #16, who look very chic in their cloche hats, as “Alice Antoinette Howland and Harriet Alma Howland, 1926.” Their relaxed pose in their fur-collared coats makes for a beautiful portrait, but none of the twins can compare to my ghostly, sour-faced girls from 170 years ago in image #1.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Nicaragua--The Next Hot Spot for Travelers?

          All the travel magazines seem to be celebrating Nicaragua this year as the new, must-see destination for travelers, pointing out that it's safe, stunningly beautiful and an incredible bargain.  Condé Nast Traveler just labelled it "a paradise poised for discovery".
           Nicaragua is also the setting for daughter Eleni Gage's next novel,  tentatively titled "The Ladies of Managua", which will be published in 2015 by St. Martin's Press.  It's about three generations of Nicaraguan women who reunite at a funeral and are forced to confront their complicated relationships to each other and to their country with its tumultuous history and vibrant present.  As someone said about the book, "Think 'Gone with the Wind' but in Nicaragua."
         To give a glimpse into the beautiful country that is the background for "The Ladies of Managua", I'm reprinting a post I wrote in 2013, describing the daily routine of daughter Eleni, granddaughter Amalia and their family during the six months they lived in the charming colonial city of Granada. If you're considering adding the country to your bucket list, you might also enjoy "Birthing Turtles in Nicaragua" and "Turtle (and Bird and Monkey) Watching in Nicaragua", which I posted in 2011.
Since October, granddaughter Amalía and her Mommy and Papi have been living in the quaint, quiet, colonial city of Granada, Nicaragua, with occasional trips back to swinging South Beach, Miami.
 Granada, with its horse-drawn carriages, almost weekly religious festivals and handicraft markets is very different from the wacky modern vibe of South Beach, but Amalía’s day is still just as busy in Nicaragua as in Florida.
                                Photo taken during the Poetry Festival by Eleni Gage de Baltodano
 Amalía wakes up demanding to eat huevos and gallo pinto—the national dish of Nicaragua, 
made of beans and rice.  ( “Gallo Pinto” literally means “spotted rooster”.)
 Then everyone goes out to have fruit and yogurt and coffee by the swimming pool. 
 But Amalía can’t tarry; she has to go find the tortugas, 
which are always hiding somewhere in the garden.  
 She likes to feed them leaves but sometimes they run away (very slowly). 
 Then she has to check on Tonia, the parrot, who comes out of her cage in the morning 
to eat sunflower seeds and wake everyone up with her shrieks. 
 After breakfast, Amalía and her Mommy may walk to the center of town 
to have juice and sweets with friends.
 And do a little shopping.
 Everyone knows Amalía and says “Buenos dias.” 

 Or Mommy and Amalía might take a taxi to the market at Masaya, to buy handicrafts.
                                 A mural at Masaya Craft Market, 14 kilometers from Granada
 hammocks, handmade masks and textiles.
Then it's time for a nap.
  After lunch Amalía likes to play in the pool with Papou, when he’s visiting,

Or with her two grandmas:   Yiayia Joanie and Abuela Carmen.

Or she might go out with her babysitter Maria José—
maybe to the lakeside where she can see parrots and monkeys,
large water birds
 and one of Nicaragua’s famous volcanoes.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Invisible (Old) Woman

  A couple of days ago, my husband and I were staying in an antique-filled small hotel in Chania, Crete, which had, in the parlor, a wall of books in many languages discarded by previous guests.  (This is one of the delights of staying in small hotels.)

I picked up a paperback by Doris Lessing called “The Summer Before the Dark”, published in 1973, and I finished it as we arrived in Athens on Sunday night.

Briefly, it’s the story of a 48-year-old British housewife and mother, Catherine (or Kate) Brown, married to a doctor, who takes a summer off from domestic life, because her husband is at a medical conference in Boston and her three teen-aged children are traveling with friends in different countries.  She lets their house for the summer and begins working at a job as a translator at conferences around the world.  (Luckily, she’s fluent in four languages.)

When her well-paying work is over, Kate takes an American lover who is much younger—in his early 20’s.  They travel in Spain, he becomes very ill from some never-specified disease, then she becomes ill and returns to London alone, staying anonymously in a hotel. 

By the time she’s well enough to get out of bed, Kate has lost 15 pounds, her clothes hang on her, her dyed red hair is coming out gray at the roots and her face has aged dramatically.  As she weakly walks around London, even passing her own house, where her best friend doesn’t recognize her, Kate realizes that, by suddenly aging from an attractive, stylish, curvy redhead into a skeletal old hag in baggy clothes, she has become invisible.

Several times she plays this game: she walks past a group of men who ignore her or goes into a restaurant where the waiters scorn her, then she goes back to the hotel, puts on a stylish dress and ties her hair back, adds lipstick and returns to the same places, where she is coddled and admired.

I admit that it’s plausible for a 48-year-old woman to transform herself at will from an invisible hag into a noticed and admired woman, but when you’re sixty, or seventy (as I am) you’re permanently in the “invisible” category, unless you’re, say, Joan Collins or Jane Fonda.

I’ve been noticing this “invisible woman” phenomenon with both amusement and consternation over the years.  Haven’t you had the experience of walking into a coffee shop or a department store or a cocktail party where everyone looks right through you and you start searching for a mirror to make sure you’re actually visible?

Yesterday we checked into the Grande Bretagne Hotel in Athens, one of the grand old luxury hotels of the world.  We arrived a bit out of breath because there was a taxi strike and we came via subway, dragging our suitcases up stairwells when there was no escalator.

My husband walked in first and I was greeted on all sides: “Welcome back Mrs. Gage!”  My suitcases disappeared. Cold water was provided.

A couple of hours later, I came down to the lobby to ask a question at the concierge desk.  There were three concierges and no other guests waiting.  The white-haired concierge was on the phone confirming someone’s dinner reservations.  The middle one was explaining to the youngest one about the book where must be recorded all cars and busses and pick-up times. I learned a lot about the hotel business, standing there 18 inches in front of them, until finally one of them noticed me and said “Oh hi!  How can I help you?”

A more fraught episode occurred Saturday in Crete at the magnificent wedding reception of a very prominent Cretan family.  Nick and I passed through security and into the estate, up some stairs where we were greeted by waiters with glasses of champagne and a world-class view of the sea below.  Lit by the full moon was a football-field- sized clearing by the seaside, filled with flower-laden tables and lighted by candles and lanterns. I stopped to admire the view, then turned toward the swimming pool area where the family was greeting guests, but my husband had vanished into thin air.

For half an hour I walked around the pool area, even wandering into the nearby yard where I thought Nick might have gone to escape the crush.  As I circled, I kept looking for a familiar face, but the only ones I recognized were from TV and the newspapers. The predominant languages were French and Greek, which I know (far better Greek than French), but I couldn’t imagine plunging into one of the groups surrounding a prime minister and blurting out in any language: “Hi, I’m the wife of Nicholas Gage”.

At the far end of the swimming pool, on a white banquette, was a young woman in a long brown dress completely absorbed in her cell phone.  I decided to take the other banquette and watch the parade of Parisian fashions pass by. Unfortunately, I had left my phone at the hotel.

Eventually my husband re-appeared.  He had gone with friends to find the lists for our table seating. After we clambered down to the sea and found our table, I had no trouble talking to the Greek jewelry designer on my right and the elegant Frenchman across the table, but that first half hour of invisibility wasn’t fun.

But sometimes I delight in being invisible.  Yesterday, I repeated a summer ritual. I walked from Constitution Square down Hermou to a tourist shop just below the Cathedral on  Mitropouleas Street to  deliver another batch of my Greek Cat books for them to sell.  Then I went to a small restaurant called “Ithaki” where every summer I get a really good gyro and some chilled white wine. I sit at the same table every time and watch the owner charm the passing tourists into sitting down to eat.  I’m fascinated by the man’s ability to know each person’s language. He’s way more skilled than the usual restaurant shills who try to lure you in with the two or three sentences they know.

Yesterday he charmed two pretty girls from South Africa into sitting at the table at my left, treating them to a piece of his “famous spinach pie” as an appetizer.  Then he gathered a rollicking table of Italians and told them which beer to order.  Directly in front of me were two American boys who had befriended two girls whose accents suggested that they came from someplace once in the USSR. “Oh, I’ve always wanted to see America,” I heard one of them say.

Wrapped in my cloak of invisibility I could hear the South African girls complaining about their parents: “If my mother ever found out!”  I could watch the American boys rather awkwardly courting the much more sophisticated Slavic girls.  I reflected that every young person should be required to take a year off before the age of 30, to tour the world with a backpack and sit in a taverna like this one, listening to the owner speak a medley of languages and learning about the world.

When he brought me the (very modest) bill, I tried to tell the owner that I come back every year because I enjoy watching him speak so many languages so well, but he just shrugged and rushed off to greet some Japanese tourists.  I think he didn’t hear me.

(Note: this was originally posted three summers ago, but since then has evoked some intriguing and thought-provoking comments, one of which came in yesterday (Sept. 1, 2014) from "Carolyn".  Here it is:

Gosh, Good memories of reading Doris Lessing. Thanks for the article. I'm over 60 now, and my gut response is : True, older women garner less attention and attentiveness. Although I agree that my temperament and energy has more to do with this response than whether I look stylish or young. For perspective here, I'd also say - If you want a treatise on feeling invisible - try imagining being an African American female or male of any age, on vacation, even though much has changed over the years. My personal response when I'm getting the invisible treatment is : Q-TIP ( Quit Taking It Personally) and be sure to engage my OWN interest in others as I encounter them.