In 1969 the American photographer Diane Arbus took some rare photos of the British Royal Family. Or rather not of the real thing, but of waxwork versions of them. The pictures, taken when Arbus visited Madame Tussauds after hours, will go on show in London for the first time next week.
Arbus was in London on an assignment for Nova magazine, photographing people who thought they looked like famous people. Her photographs, including Elizabeth Taylor look-alike reclining on a bed and Winston Churchill look-alike – also taken in London – will be exhibited alongside royal images, including Wax Museum: Lord Snowdon and Princess Margaret. Other more familiar Arbus photographs in the show include Russian Midget Friends in a Living Room on 100th Street, N.Y.C; Blind Couple in Their Bedroom; and A Naked Man Being a Woman – all taken in America over the course of a career which ended in tragedy when Arbus committed suicide in 1971, aged 48.
According to Neil Selkirk – the only person allowed by the Arbus estate to print her photographs – Arbus was "curious of everybody".
"It was an incredibly seductive quality when you realised her interest was entirely genuine," he says.
Selkirk, who still uses Arbus's late-1940s Omega D Enlarger, now stationed with him at home in New York, first met the photographer in 1970, when she would show up at Hiro's studio, which he shared with Richard Avedon. "Diane was exploring cameras that weren't square. Hiro had a Pentax 6 x 7. I was given the job of showing her how to use it," says Selkirk, who was Hiro's assistant at the time.
Selkirk then attended a master class given by Arbus in New York at the beginning of 1971. "She killed herself in July 1971. I was in Europe at the time. I offered my help through Diane's friend, the art director Marvin Israel."
He set about researching all of her negatives. "It wasn't that big a deal at the time. The most expensive prints by famous photographers sold for $175. It was more to do with being in the right place at the right time."
He worked in Arbus's darkroom in the basement of an old apartment building in New York's West Village. In 1972 he started to print, trying to match the exhibition prints that she had made from the same negatives. "There was a detailed log of how to mix chemicals by her husband [the photographer Allan Arbus]," he says. "I just figured it all out from being in her darkroom".
'Diane Arbus: Affinities', Timothy Taylor Gallery, London W1 (timothytaylorgallery.com), 26 June to 17 August
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