I am both a documentary photographer and a portrait photographer. Great documentary photography captures a precise moment in one frame. Great portrait photography captures the essence of the person or persons being photographed. In portraiture, the subject is usually very aware of the camera. Sometimes a photograph is both portraiture and documentary.

Five years ago, I started working with the Polaroid 20x24 camera. I use this camera most often as a portrait camera. For me, there is no better format than 20x24 to catch that very essence of a person. The extraordinary detail in this format brings portraiture to yet another level. Of course because of the size and amount of light needed with this camera, the subject is most certainly aware when he of she is being photographed.

I’ve always been fascinated by twins.  In my forty years of photographing, whenever there was an opportunity I would take a picture of twins. I found the notion that two people could appear to look exactly alike very compelling.

The Twins Days Festival in Twinsburg, Ohio is an annual gathering of several thousand sets of twins with festivities and events. I heard about it several years ago and I very much wanted to go there to take pictures. My first trip to Twinsburg was in 1998. It was an amazingly visual experience and at the same time, very strange and frustrating. It was like I was seeing double and I felt somewhat isolated not being a twin. At the airpoirt on my way back to New York, I remember thinking how bizarre it was to be surrounded by non-twins.

During that first trip to the Twins Days Festival, I approached the subject as both a documentary and a portrait photographer.  I worked with several formats: 35mm, 2 ¼, 6x7, and 4x5. In the end, I found that the images that worked best were the more formal portraits in either medium format or 4x5 because of the precise detail they revealed.  I knew I wanted to photograph the twins again and when I thought about how to best do this, I had a revelation.  The most powerful way to photograph the twins would be to use the 20x24 Polaroid camera.  By using this camera, I could show, in precise detail, not only how much twins are alike but the subtle qualities that often make them so different.

We then began to plan the project. I made the decision to sponsor this project myself in order to have total creative control. This is not the first time I’ve done this. I think it is extremely important to move forward with personal projects, even if you don’t have the outside support. Your own body of personal work is what establishes you as an individual and as an artist, and you have to make it happen. In the past, some of my projects have been at least initially commissioned by magazines, but today that world has changed and I have to rely a lot more on myself.

This endeavor took an incredible amount of production. In April 2001, we started planning the project. We contacted the Twins Days Festival to begin setting everything up. My husband, Martin Bell, began to design the set and lighting. In August 2001, two vans and one truck carried a crew of twelve people, a lot of equipment, and the huge Polaroid camera from New York to Ohio. A tent was erected to precise specifications on the festival grounds. The electric company supplied us with (200 amps) a lot of power. My biggest fear was that it would rain during the whole festival and we would be washed out or electrocuted. By chance, we only had one morning of torrential rain and no electrocutions. It was very hot (over 95 degrees), especially in the tent, despite the two large fans. We were all dripping wet but we drank a lot of water and had a great time.

And then in 2002 we did it again. So, the second time around, we knew about the good parking spots close to our tent, we knew where to get great lemonade, and we had staked out our favorite table at the local Outback restaurant. But the most important thing was how welcoming the twins were that we had met the years before. As a matter of fact, they almost made us feel like part of the twin family, which is the greatest compliment they could give us. So, we all want to say, thank you twins. We will be forever grateful for your kindness and collaboration.

This winter I spent many hours on the phone talking to almost all of the twins that I photographed and ended up with way over a thousand pages of transcripts. I found the process of interviewing the twins almost as interesting as taking their pictures. People described the wonderful, as well as the painful things about being twins. The crazy moments, the embarrassing moments, and the fights, as well as the great love they share with each other. I was deeply touched at how willing all of the twins were to open up their lives and hearts to me. Again, thank you.

--Mary Ellen Mark, January 2003