To reach Mary Ellen Mark’s studio, just above Greene Street in Manhattan’s SoHo district, one enters an elevator that opens onto the sidewalk, opening and closing to the street like the shutter of a camera. It lifts you to a floor bustling with activity, filled with books of her work and walls covered with photographs. She’s taken pictures of circuses in Vietnam and India and of urban street culture in American cities. For her new book, “Twins,” she took pictures at a twins festival, “Twins Days” in Twinsburg, Ohio. Her husband, Martin Bell, made a documentary film of the twins.
They built a temporary studio in a tent and used an extra-large Polaroid 20-by-24 camera, which Polaroid rents out for special projects; it is named for the dramatically large prints it generates. Mark displayed an animated mix of toughness and a shyness that showed despite the openness with which she answered questions.
What drew you to photographing twins?
I’ve always photographed twins. There is a whole history of photographers photographing twins. It is very fascinating to look at two people who are exactly alike or who appear to be exactly alike. I’m talking more about identical twins than fraternal twins. Fraternal twins are less interesting. Fraternal is more like brother and sister. There are similarities, but it is not like identical. Identical twins have the same DNA. They’re very, very similar to each other. So I had photographed twins for a long time, always when I went to India or wherever. And then I heard about this festival.
And what did using the big camera offer you?
It was like examining twins under a microscope. The camera allows you to do that. By doing that, you can see the differences in them. One guy’s ears stick out more, one guy has bigger eyes, the mouth is different. That’s what’s interesting, those differences. Twins love to be photographed. They enjoy their twin-ness.
I interviewed you once in 1988 for a piece about a show with another photographer about people with mental illness.
Those were my mental hospital pictures.
At one point in that interview, you said: “A lot of my work is about isolation.”
It is. A lot of my work is about isolation.
Are these photographs of twins different, a breaking free of that isolation?
No. Because the way that they’re seen in this room that we created is in a very isolated way. They are isolated from the rest of society, twins. I think so. The pictures are about isolation. I wanted to isolate them.
Do you think they feel that isolation?
I think twins feel completely isolated from nontwins and from the rest of society.
These photographs, the mood is melancholy.
Where do you think that comes from?
I think that life is either very funny or very sad. Some of my pictures are very funny. Some of my circus pictures are very funny. But some of my pictures are very sad. Maybe I’m a melancholic person and so I look at life like that.
You say in the book that you kept asking the twins if they were thinking about when one might lose the other. You seem obsessed about this.
Except that what I love about the film is that it is funny, and then this idea of death comes up and you almost want to cry. One of the pictures in the book is of a man who’s lost his brother. John Reiff is his name, and he’s shown holding a photograph of his brother.
What did he say about losing his twin?
He said it is just beyond words. They grew up on this farm in Iowa, and they wanted to find another set of twins and marry the other set of twins. But they never did. And they slept in the same bed all their lives. To me, there is nothing more interesting than what comes out of people’s lives.
Did you worry that photographing twins might be seen as a kind of novelty act?
The hardest thing for me has been to be compared to Diane Arbus. People want to pigeonhole you. She has one very famous photograph of twins. It happened a couple of times in publication, and it’s so unfair in a way. That just devastates me when it happens, even though she’s a fine photographer.
Maybe that is like a twin emotion? You sound a little bit like the twins in the movie: “I’m not like her.”
But I’m not! Our work is so different, so many different subjects. Nobody wants to be told that they’re like somebody else. So I would be a terrible twin.
-- Allan M. Jalon