Imogen and Twinka

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.)

Imogen and Twinka by Judy Dater (1974)

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.

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19 thoughts on “Imogen and Twinka

  1. Yet here we are 34 years later and our country has moved backwards in terms of nudity. The history of the ‘Nude’ as opposed to sex has always been separate, but today any exposure of flesh in lumped with sex.

    I’ve seen this picture before but never knew the context, thanks for the information.

  2. Brian, it is dismaying to think we’ve actually gone backwards in our approach to nudity, but I believe you are right.

    Over the past 35 years or so, some very powerful interests have been at work trying to shape public opinion on nudity and sexuality — and they have to some great extent succeeded in their efforts to repress the expression of both.

  3. As one of the better photographers of the figurenude, I find that over the past few years the POWERS you refer to have only seemed to link nudity and sex. THEY try to use morality and a false sense of moral superiority because there are so many photographers who pursue the selling sexual stimulation on the internet. They try to cuddle the art nude up with pornography by calling it simply “soft core” porn.
    I suppose here I am telling the “CHOIR” here about this.

    http://www.figurenude.com/Curtis.Neeley

  4. Curtis, those are some great nudes on your site! Thanks for the link!

    I suspect there are many people who simply lack the talent or skill to tell for themselves the difference between an art nude and pornography, just as there are many people who simply lack the talent or skill to do math. It is unfortunate those people are so often exploited by the powers we are referring to.

  5. The photograph of me and Imogen was staged for the benefit of a large group of workshop participants who didn’t have the slightest clue as to how to work with a model let alone a group of nude models.
    When we first took off our robes the photographers were like paparazzi with their machine gun cameras shooting madly, yelling at the models and fighting with each other over which model belonged to which photographer. In short… a nightmare for this shy creature who had been working as a model in art schools and for individual painters starting with my father, Wayne Thiebaud, for most of her life.
    Judy Dater, Imogen and I walked away from the madness and Judy decided to show the workshop
    participants her method of working with models.. in this case Imogen and me. We worked together harmoniously and it shows in the photograph.

  6. Hi Twinka! Welcome to the blog!

    I stand corrected then. The accounts I read had it that Judy Dater snapped the photograph almost on the spur of the moment. I should have known better than to believe such stuff. How well you three were working together to produce great art indeed shows in the photo.

    Over the years, the work you created that day has grown on me to become one of my favorite works of art. I am very much in your debt for that.

  7. For me, it reminds me of Eve in Eden, on being discovered being aware of being naked. Thereis a mischieviosness about Twinka that suggests a playfull innocence, against the world weary expression of Imogen, as if God sees Eve playfully embarrased about being naked, and God before throwing her from the Garden of Eden gives her a look as to say “Whats the fuss?”

    God in this instance would appear feminine, an expression of the sacred feminine.

    See my video for a poetic take on the scene…

  8. I noted that twinka replied to entry on your blog. I am trying to contact twinka regarding her photo with Imogen taken by Judy Dater. If she gets this please respond.

    Thank you

    Dean Iverson

  9. Please forward this to Twinka, if you would be so kind.

    I saw Judy’s photograph being created, about six feet away in 1974. This was a relatively innocent workshop yet one the most important seminal Nude workshops of the last fifty years.

    Hi Twinka,

    I was also there at the Nude and the Landscape workshop as a young photographer of 24 and photographed you many times that week and again the next year in Yosemite.

    As proof, do you remember your friend Robert Heinecken proudly wearing a hat with the slogan “Decadance A Way of Life?”

    I came to visit you at Henry Miller’s house in Pacific Pallisades and share my photography. It was wonderful and memorable meeting Henry Miller. I still remember seeing Henry coming to the door using his four poster with that wonderful huge grin of his stretched across his face. His house, of course, seemed filled with young women in various states of undress and nudity.

    I saw the magical symbiosis happen between you and Imogen under the tutelidge of Judy Dater. I was about six feet away.

    That was my first exposure that art might be created and crafted as opposed to more “honest” art that was “found.”

    The Workshops, and working with you, were most important to my life as a photographer and led to my coming to San Francisco to pursue my career as a professional photographer and fine artist for the past thirty-five years.

    Please contact me if you would like to see more photography from the two workshops in 1974 + 1975. I have all the work, part of which is on my fine art website: http://www.greekislandphotography.com/gallery.html?folio=&gallery=Nude%20%26%20the%20Landscape

    Best, Glenn Steiner

  10. I would like to take a photo of Ms Thiebold today. She may be older and look different. I believe I could spend a few hours and redefine the ART of the nude forever. July Dater and Imogen Cunningham were good photographer in their time and Imogen did better than I do sometimes with still life photos. Neither artist got remotely close to the caliber of art I ALWAYS achieve before I allow a photograph that I do of the figure as an object of art to be shown now. take a look. figurenude.com/Curtis Ms Bernhard often surpassed me and many others often accidentally do. If Ms Thiebold reads this could you please contact me. I have no legs and am in NWAR but would figure out how we could meet for a shoot.
    I am involved in a Federal Court case against Google Inc and hope to add every search engine. You can’t get anywhere but the entry page of figurenude.com or Master-of-Photography.US from ANY search engine besides Lycos.com.
    They publish my nude art and many call this PORN. For many where they are saying this;- it is true.
    My minor children do not need to see my figurenude art since I only see them for visitation. Children should not be broadcast pornography even as artist as mine.
    I am a friendly paralyzed artist.

  11. Hi,
    I ran across this blog and would like to send a message to Twinka if you can possibly do that. I became friends with her in 1978 or so in LA and we used to hang out.

    Twinka: Maybe you would remember me if I said we both shared love of Marie Corelli and especially her book Romance of Two Worlds, for which we wanted to write a screen play. I left for India and gave you all of my clothes. I met you at Jack’s in Calabasas. I was a writer, then. I am still a writer and painter now, too, about your age. I had no idea then who you were or what your life was about except I used to come over to visit you at Henry’s house and have dinner when you were his cook and caregiver. I was in my twenties then and had never read Henry Miller, so what did I know? I just really enjoyed talking with you endlessly about everything. It was so rich. My name is Judith. I am sorry I lost track of you. I stayed in India for so long and my life changed. I would never forget you though. You were a lovely friend when I didn’t have any in LA. I had just moved there from NYC. Many blessings, Twinka. Who could forget you.

  12. Judith, I’m glad you gave Twinka your clothes. From the looks of her in that photograph, it seems like she could really use some.

  13. Could you pass this message on to Twinka if you can? I knew Twinka back when we were in a high school theater workshop at San Francisco State some 50 years ago. Over the years I have Seen bits and pieces refering to her in biographies of H. M. and the Imogen Cunningham photo in an anthology of her work. What impresses me the most about the photo , and that I find charming, is the expression on her face and the pose that reminds me of a shy wood nymph. I would like to find out what she has been doing with herself; post Miller., Scott Malpass

  14. In those days, Judy Dater was using mostly a Deardorff 4×5 Special, if I remember correctly. So she would not be taking snapshots of things that just happened by. I have a print I bought from Judy many years ago of Imogen and Twinka. I understand that that picture is something of an albatross these days as too many think that is the only photograph Judy Dater has ever made. She has done a lot of work since then, even getting to the point of using a 35mm camera for some things.

    • Interesting point. Thank you!

      As I understand it, the photo is significant in the history of photography and art because it did much to change the way the female nude was understood. If there’s any truth to that, then it’s no wonder it’s Dater’s most famous work.

  15. Pingback: Lisa Beth Johnson

  16. The nude figure has always been one of the most beautiful elements to illustrate. Even in religious art, it is found everywhere. In America, I believe the nude has been manipulated (like most things) for sales of products. The more forbidden it becomes the more money some make. Women’s clothing and men’s magazines are just a few areas that benefit. I did a headshot only of a beautiful model some years ago. The headshot was viewed in a gallery and a viewer got mad at me alleging “she could see lust in the models eyes,” I realized then that appreciation or indignation is in the mind of the beholder and not the image. I am sure some people might see lust in a banana peel. Whether that is good or not, I leave up to you.

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