You remember the famous Diane Arbus photograph I posted the other day under the "Random Excellence" rubric. (That just means something I encountered randomly, that's all—in this case it was in an auction listing, as I mentioned.) Well, turns out one of our readers, Benjamin Marks, knows the guy in the picture! His name is Colin Wood and he's an insurance salesman in California, married with two kids.
I'll turn it over to Ben:
"I started taking pictures and developing my own film in college back in the mid-1980s. Think: Pentax K1000 and a 50mm ƒ/1.7 lens, Tri-X and the Sprint chemistry that was a staple of college darkrooms in those days. One of my friends was an older student, Colin Wood, who was completing college later than most of us. At some point after our paths crossed, he asked me whether I knew the Diane Arbus photograph of the kid holding the hand grenade. I said I did, and he said, 'Well, that's me.' He and I 'collaborated' on a bunch of projects...mostly what I call now 'college kids messing around with cameras.' Over the years, we talked about the Arbus picture and he said that he had been in contact with Doon, the executor of Arbus' estate, and had generally been met with hostility or indifference when he asserted his identity as the kid in the picture. Nevertheless, I believe Colin's story. For what it is worth, it was covered in an SFGate article in 2003.
Colin Wood by Benjamin Marks, 1980s
"I spoke to Colin yesterday and explained that I wanted to send a picture or two of him from the 1980s to you and he said he was fine with it. Colin is a colorful, interesting, and thoughtful guy. Here are a couple of pictures of Colin when he was in his late twenties. I can see the resemblance to the grenade-kid photographs. He looks more or less the same today, except with grey hair and kids of his own.
Photo by Benjamin Marks
"These photos did take a little digging in my 'archives' (scare quotes to denote a glancing relationship only with the level of organization that the word 'archives' implies). Along the way, I looked at a number of contact sheets that I haven't inspected in years. There ought to be an adjective specific to the kind of memory-immersion that review of old contact sheets causes. I suspect German has a sixteen-syllable compound word for it. This, in turn led to setting up a film scanner for the first time since I bought my current computer and scanning pictures of friends to whom I haven't spoken in years. That is a separate set of tangents, though.
"Another thing that struck me was how many separate subjects I crammed into one 36-exposure roll, and how few photographs I devoted to each subject. Often two pictures that I remember as significant at the time are of totally different subjects on the same roll of film."
Ben also said, "My sense is that Arbus didn't go in for model releases in the 1960s when the picture was taken and that the legal landscape has changed significantly, particularly with the rights to children and the sale prices of Arbus' work, although I have no direct evidence of this." Actually, she wouldn't have needed a model release, then or now—art photographs, like news and editorial pictures, don't require model releases, even if the resulting artworks are traded for lots of money. I don't know much more about this than Ben does, but my sense is that Diane Arbus was actually very good about giving prints to her subjects, if she knew who they were and where to find them, and if she had given a print to Colin it would have been worth quite a lot now—with that kind of provenance, most likely comfortably in excess of a million dollars. I hope that that knowledge doesn't grate on Colin!
As far as Doon Arbus is concerned, again I know nothing specific, but I'll just hazard a guess that she's probably fielded quite a few calls over the years from people asserting some claim or another over various photographs of her mother's. It's just a guess, but I'll bet many of those people were not, shall we say, well-grounded individuals. :-) So perhaps her attitude should be forgiven until we know more about her feelings about it.
Ben concluded, "I hope this is an interesting data point about a famous-mostly-to-photographers picture. I have ambivalent feelings about Arbus—I find her work deeply affecting, and there is no doubt that she had a great eye (I think the contact print you posted, which is also in the SFGate article, demonstrates this), but her attraction to the marginal (and then my attraction to the marginal) never sits entirely comfortably with me. That is part of her value, I think, as a photographer—to make the viewer confront his own discomfort. I put Sally Mann in the same box for the purposes of my own moral compass."
I don't think it's a picture that's famous only to photographers. The book is, after all, one of the great photographic bestsellers in the whole history of American photography, and that photograph is among her most recognized. The ambivalence Ben mentions is part of her work and part of her genius. Sally Mann once told me she likes to "tweak peoples' tails," which she certainly did. The difference is that various commentators have felt that Diane had some psychological issues that were being worked out in her pictures—that's the subject of endless speculation now, sometimes even at book length. Diane's psyche belongs to the ages now, of course. Like her photographs.
We've talked about the subject of two others before, Anderson Cooper as a baby and the famous twins immortalized in the movie "The Shining." How interesting to hear about the subject of another of them. Many thanks to Ben and, indirectly, to Colin.
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Dave Kee: "I just read New York Magazine's 2016 article 'Was Diane Arbus the Most Radical Photographer of the 20th Century?' All I can say is: wow."
James Rhem: "I could go on and on and on about the Arbus estate. It's not surprising Colin was met with hostility. Ask any scholar who's tried to write on Arbus what the estate is like."