Is photography art? All you ever needed to know is in this portrait

Identical twins - 1967 - Diane Arbus (Copyright Arbus Estate)

For some, photography isn’t quite art because it simply captures reality. There is no artifice in many shots, no craft: the world comes together in a moment of specific configuration, more or less outside of an artist’s intent, and a photographer simply points the camera and – click! Art is made. Or isn’t, since the artist has very little to do. There isn’t the sheer hard work that goes in to, say, a painting or a novel. We might feel – ‘I could have done that!’ And indeed we could, if all photography means is to point and click.

Diane Arbus‘ photo ‘Identical Twins‘ shows us in a very immediate way that photography can do more than that. On one level we have a photo of two very similar girls. However, despite their clear resemblance we quickly notice differences: one girl is frowning a little while the other smiles; one pair of eyes is hooded, the other clear and open; the hands are slightly different, the hair; and so on. And as we notice those differences, we interpret those them as significant and meaningful: we might say that one child is happy; one less prim and proper than the other; one more dominant, and so on. We might then go on to think about the nature of identity, of how uniqueness triumphs uniformity. We find meaning in gaps, the differences between the two girls.

This process of finding ‘meaning in the gaps’ also lends itself to discovering the ‘art’ in photography. In this way of thinking, the similarity is not between two subjects but between the photograph and the reality it represents. The gaps are those elements where the photographer has introduced an element of creativity, artifice, illusion, call it what you will. In the above example, there are many examples. First, the photographer has assembled the two girls in a certain pose, emphasising the same hairstyle, clothes and so on. This helps us in seeing the differences – and finding the meanings – between the two subjects. It’s clearly not just a slice of life, although it might include that.

But note the junction between wall and floor: it is at an angle, higher on the left compared to the right. This is deliberate. We might interpret this as saying: what seems a balanced portrait is actually askew; although seemingly identical, our immediate perceptions are upset by the uncertainty that their differences bring; that the photograph wants to destabilise our preconceptions about what it means to be the same and yet not the same; that ultimately what seems to be a simple capturing of reality is really the product of the artist-photographer intent.

Reading photographs like this is underpinned by two central ideas. The first is that there is no such as thing as an ‘innocent’ photograph, that is, one taken without any kind of artifice or creativity. Even when taking holidays snaps we don’t just point and click: we might frame the face so the top of the head of our subject is not cut off; we’re told to put the main subject to one side to promote a sense of harmony, create some interest. The second central idea, following from the first, is that even the smallest details are often there deliberately. In ‘Identical Twins’, the slant of the junction between the wall and floor is deliberately significant, as we’ve seen.

What we have in this photo is a metaphor for the relationship between art and reality. Where two very similar images (ideas, symbols, techniques) are placed in close proximity it is likely that we will find differences between them. It is in those differences that the meaning lie. ‘Identical Twins’ (it’s title at once both plainly descriptive but, as we’ve seen, highly charged with meaning) by Diane Arbus is one of those key photographs that tell us more about the relationship between photography and reality, and between photography and art.

If you find this image a little unsettling there are good reasons for it. Our minds are programmed to identify the human face. When we see slight discrepancies between the real and the near-real, as we might most often in Japanese ‘humanoid’ robots or ultra-realistic computer games, we enter the ‘uncanny valley’, that phase of interpretation where an image appears strange,   Here, the differences between two ‘identical’ twins remind us of that disjunct. It is also the starkness of the black and white; the unfussy background which focusses our attention; the confrontational quality implied by the pose and gaze direct to the viewer. The film director Stanley Kubrick would later use a similar image for the murdered twins in his ‘The Shining’.

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