I have an interview with Twinka posted here. — Paul Sunstone
Readers interested in Twinka might wish to read a review of her new book, What Doncha Know? About Henry Miller. The review can be found here. — Paul Sunstone
The place was Yosemite, California, 1974, and Imogen Cunningham was lecturing a class on nude photography. Judy Dater was in attendance. Dater, who was already an accomplished photographer, saw her chance and snapped a picture of Imogen and her model, Twinka Thiebaud (pronounced Tee-bo). The result was extraordinary — only poorly reproduced here. (Edit: Twinka herself gives quite a different account of the day in a comment below on this post.)
Oddly, when I first saw the Imogen and Twinka photo, I was put off.
I didn’t know the history of the photo, and at first glance, I imagined the shot had been staged by some heavy spirited photographer in order to bludgeon the viewer with a trite, melodramatic message — something along the lines of “we all grow old.”
The above reproduction is a poor one — albeit the best I could find on the net — that fails to show how crisp the details are in other reproductions of Imogen and Twinka. For instance, in other reproductions, the details are so sharp you can almost feel the bark Twinka is propped against. The texture of her skin is still visible even in the shadows, and I recall that Imogen’s face and expression are minutely rendered.
However, it is still possible from the reproduction used here to see the breathtaking grace of Twinka’s pose. It was for the sake of that pose — which I wanted to sketch — and because of the sharp, rich details, that I once bought a much nicer reproduction of the photo. My reproduction seems to have gotten misplaced, but I used to study it often, and I gradually became convinced the Judy Dater’s photo is great art.
Given the photo was not staged, it sometimes surprises me how many themes I can read into it when I wish to do so. This photo, more than most, inspires stories. One of my favorite stories is that Twinka represents nature, while Imogen represents civilization. Civilization seems a bit surprised to have discovered nature — especially nature confident, graceful, and at ease with herself.
Stories aside, Imogen and Twinka could be a study in contrasting textures. Twinka’s hair with the bark. Imogen’s dress with Twinka’s skin. And so on.
Twinka Theibaud, by the way, is the daughter of the California painter, Wayne Theibaud. One of his most famous works is reproduced below:
As you know, Cunningham herself produced some exceptional nudes. She is most famous for her figure studies, but one of my favorites, which is reproduced below, is a nude portrait of Morris Graves in 1973. I love the quality of light and the contrast between the tanned face and pale body. To me, the photo seems to capture the reflectiveness of a man late in his life. Graves, in this photo, is as beautiful as Twinka in the Dater photo.