At the shore of the Danube at Újvidék (Novi Sad, Serbia) in 1930. #77156 Photo: Fortepan / András Hajdu

Can You Spot the Difference within the Same Photo?

The Background to Mysterious Twin Portraits

One of the most highly priced photos in the world was taken of two seven-year-old sisters. Even the reinterpretations of Diane Arbus’s photo are world-famous. Twins have been intriguing the mind and fantasy of artists, scientists, and lay people alike, from ancient times till today. The study of twins, in spite of its long scholarly tradition, still provides surprising discoveries to this day.

“There are and have been and will be an infinite number of things on earth. Individuals all different, all wanting different things, all knowing different things, all loving different things, all looking different. That is what I love: the differentness, the uniqueness of all things and the importance of life…”—wrote the American photographer Diane Arbus at age 16 in a high-school essay. For some people, a champion of social sensitization, for others a pointless provocator, Arbus, who suffered from bipolar disorder, took her own life 50 years ago. She was 48 at the time.

1911. #2866 Photo: Fortepan

The deep emotional experience of differentness is the most prevalent, in Arbus’s photo of two—supposedly—identical girls: the Wade sisters. The photo made it to Arbus’s one and only portfolio titled A Box of Ten Photographs, containing no more than ten photos out of her entire body of work of thousands of photographs. At the end of the 1960s, as an article of the New York Times from the period attests, twins were considered a rarity, and treated as an attraction. Hence it is not surprising that Arbus, renowned for photographing cross-dressers, mentally and physically disabled people, chose the Wade girls as her subject as well. It is even less surprising that a person obsessed with differentness was looking for the difference in the identicalness of identical twins. One of the twins keeps her eyes half closed, while the other one stares directly at the camera; their bangs are in a different position; they seem to be in very different moods. While the collars of their dresses seem to merge totally, as if they were wearing the same piece, their thighs differ.

1930. #2426 Photo: Fortepan

Muses and twin portraits

The mesmerizing twin portrait taken in 1967 has been a source of inspiration for many artists: The twins in Stanley Kubrick’s classic movie Shining evoke Arbus’s photo just like Sandro Miller’s reinterpretation of the double portrait with John Malkovich as the model. Twinship has been a fascinating topic just as well for everyday people as for world-famous artists. The Fortepan Archive—founded by Miklós Tamási and Ákos Szepessy in 2010 to collect photos by amateurs and professional photographers alike—contains various twin portraits as well, including studio photographs from the first half of the 20th century, as well as street photographs and snapshots from the more recent past.

Some of the most enigmatic photographs in the collection are part of an entire photo series on twins from the 1930s. Just as in many other cases, the circumstances in which these photos were taken are unknown. Zsuzsanna Zsohár, the person who donated the photos to Fortepan, only knew that her father inherited them from an old lady called Vira néni from Lehel Street. Vira néni had her own children as well but she was concerned that they would not take good care of the photos, so she decided to give them to her neighbor in her will instead. From Zsuzsanna’s father, they ended up with Zsuzsanna, but along the way their story was lost, probably for good. We do not know who the twins are, who the photographer was, or on what occasions the photos were taken.

1930. #60316 Photo: Fortepan / Zsuzsa Zsohár
1930. #60322 Photo: Fortepan / Zsuzsa Zsohár
1930. #60317 Photo: Fortepan / Zsuzsa Zsohár

Twins were surrounded by a mystical aura for centuries. Contributing to this aura was a higher infant mortality rate, less effective premature infant care, and the fact that twin births or multiple pregnancies were more exceptional in the absence of artificial insemination.

1965. #155074 Photo: Fortepan / Tamás Székely
1970. #93341 Photo: Fortepan / Iván Kádár
1977. #4659 Photo: Fortepan

In European culture, twins had a special place among ancient Greek and Roman gods and goddesses as well: Apollo and Artemis were twins and Hercules (the Roman equivalent of the Greek mythological figure Heracles) had a twin sibling, too. But the best known twin brothers in world history were raised by a she-wolf: Romulus and Remus, who, according to the legend, founded Rome. Hindu mythology also contains several twin figures. The twin children of the Hindu deities Rama and Sita also shared a rather tragic fate, like their counterparts in Ancient Greek and Roman mythology. This tragic character may have served as a basis for the medieval view of twins spreading along with Christianity: twins were considered freaks, a scourge, or creatures of the Devil. It was usually the mother who was blamed for the unfortunate event and double births raised suspicion about the mother and could lead to accusation of witchcraft.

1916. #62665 Photo: Fortepan / Veszprém County Archive / Klauszer
1904. #150084 Photo: Fortepan / Imre Barna

The Age of Enlightenment, and specifically, the advent of modern medicine, saw the start of a gradual shift from the suspicion regarding twinship. Based on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, his cousin, the British polymath Francis Galton, was the first to publish about the determining role of genes and external factors based on the results of twin studies, in his book The History of Twins. Thus, Dalton swiftly became the father of social darwinism, and twin studies became a subject of research for decades.

1931. #60306 Phhoto: Fortepan / Zsuzsa Zsohár
1938. #29614 Photo: Fortepan / Kölcsey Ferenc Dunakeszi City Library / Petanovits photos

Research and Community Building

One of the most prominent and emblematic figures in Hungarian twin studies, the biologist Júlia Métneki, is also a twin. Métneki organized twin gatherings in the 1980s and these events led to an important photo project: the photojournliast Imre Benkő followed the events and photographed Hungarian twins through decades, and eventually published a photo-essay titled Twins in 2008.

At the shore of the Maros River at Arad (today in Romania) in 1921. #21135 Photo: Fortepan / Imre Del Medico
1922. #131088 Photo: Fortepan / Éva Kármentő

In some of the twin portraits in the Fortepan Archive—for instance, in a 1958 photo by Sándor Bauer who was working for MTI Hungarian News Agency—it is the sameness of the twins that predominates. In others, as with the Arbus photo, it is their conspicuous difference. The most salient differences, even in the case of the youngest models, are in posture and in behavior, which allows the viewer to infer contrasts in character.

On the patio of the Hungarian Post's Cultural Center in Budapest in 1958. #110155 Photo: Fortepan / Sándor Bauer
1961. #149099 Photo: Fortepan / Album027

Identical twins are not identical genetically

Although identical twins differ in personality and even in fingerprints, such differences had been explained by the impact of different external factors, based especially on Galton’s theory. For instance, fingerprints are modified by the surface of objects grabbed while exploring the world, and behavior and character is also influenced by social relations. For a long time, no one supposed that the differences could have a genetic source as well. This is why a recent study published in Nature Genetics proved taboo-breaking: the authors of the study found evidence that there are differences in the DNA of identical twins.  

Identical twins develop from the same fertilized egg. The egg then splits into two and forms two embryos that develop individually. However, as the embryos develop further into fetuses, even at a very early stage of development, mutations can occur in the genes of one twin that are absent in the other.

András Kő, news reporter and editor with the Vári twins at the studio of the Hungarian Radio in 1963. #190558 Photo: Fortepan / Zoltán Szalay
The shooting of the TV program "Televarieté '74" at the studio of the Hungarian Television. Behind the dancers, the Vári twins. #190892 Photo: Fortepan /Zoltán Szalay

According to the study, these differences usually affect no more than 5 base pairs. The human DNA consists of about 3 billions of base pairs, of which 5 base pairs seems like an infinitesimal fraction. However, the DNA is there in every single cell of the body, in each and every cell nucleus, so these minor differences can be there in every cell of a twin’s body. Twin studies were based on a wrong assumption since Galton’s times, and therefore the impact of external factors had most probably been overestimated until recently. It seems possible that genetic mutations and differences have more to do with individual differences than we thought before.

Text: Zsuzsanna Balázs | Photo editor: István Virágvölgyi | English translation: Nóra Vörös [The original article was published in Hungarian]

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