Twin Peeks 

David Teplica

at Stephen Daiter, through September 19

By Fred Camper

Some early cultures were so appalled by the phenomenon of identical twins that they killed them. Our own more humane society tends to find them merely cute. But not David Teplica, a Chicago photographer and MD with an active practice in plastic and reconstructive surgery. He's photographed twins for scientific and artistic purposes for the last ten years, making more than 8,000 images of them from infancy to old age. Teplica's work has been featured in the popular media: one image graces the cover of a novel, and another was pilfered by a porn shop for its ads. Occasionally the 33 works now at Stephen Daiter do have a provocative edge--a few twins cavort together nude--but they're never really erotic. Rather they offer a visually rich and often moving exploration of the nature of human identity.

Looking at these photos made me realize how neatly the phenomenon of twins suits the postmodern ethos, which calls into question, even denies, the authenticity of individual identity as well as of imagery. At least since Cindy Sherman began working, in the mid-70s, photographers have been filling galleries with wall-size installations of self-portraits in which no version of the self is privileged over any other. And the way Teplica often photographs his twins--intertwined, each facing some part of the other--they look a bit like cutout paper dolls.

The aesthetic danger in Teplica's project is that identical twins almost always look cute--and cuteness comes perilously close to kitsch, offering little more than a momentary, meaningless surge of pleasure. But by flirting with cuteness yet never going for the obvious little kick offered by identically dressed kids in double-wide strollers, Teplica creates work full of self-questioning, disturbing echoes. Teplica's twins don't merely ask for the viewer's approbation: they peer into each other's eyes or grope each other's bodies, as if seeking themselves in the other--and because of their identical looks, they seem to find it. The range of human interaction is here too: these twins smile together, register surprise together. In Kiss/Bite, they even seem to be furious together, biting at each other's faces.

While we first notice the "identical" aspects of Teplica's twins, differences also emerge. In Ovum we see a nude pair from above, their bodies curled together, their left arms bent and parallel while their right hands grasp at each other. Together they make a rhythmic, dynamic egglike shape, elegantly recalling twins' monozygotic origins. But their bodies reach out not only toward each other but toward the surrounding darkness--their feet poke out from the "ovum" in similar but not identical positions--and one starts to notice other tiny differences between them. In an untitled 1995 work, four arms are set against darkness, but again the symmetry is less than perfect; in fact one arm is almost hidden by shadow. The four hands at the center are clasped together, fingers interlocked in a way that suggests tension, a pulling apart as much as a coming together. These twins are not so much posing for the camera--as it appears Cindy Sherman is doing--but caught in the midst of a struggle to find out who they are. In an untitled 1991 shot, two chins with almost identical amounts of stubble make neat mirror images of each other. But the curve where the chins meet, a black line against white flesh, separates as much as it bonds the two men: a kind of fault line, it represents a rupture between the two selves.

Teplica's dual careers are rooted in his childhood. Born in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, in 1959, he had a mom who was a registered nurse and an architect father with an interest in historic preservation. Both a photographer and a surgeon "doing human architecture," Teplica blends his parents' passions. As an undergrad he took both premed and art courses, and Thomas Krizek, chairman of the department of surgery at the University of Chicago Hospitals, allowed him to take two years off from his residency to study for his MFA at the School of the Art Institute. "I owe him a great debt," Teplica told me. "He validated my split existence, brought it whole again."

Teplica's photographs of twins--only one of several photographic projects he's pursued--have been motivated partly by his medical interests: some have been part of a study of facial anatomy. But they're also driven by personal obsession: Teplica says he was "completely consumed by the idea of twins for a good chunk of my childhood. The identical-twin issue allows us all to acknowledge our own dichotomies. Can you think of any other vehicle that allows us to deal with ego and alter ego, or striving for closeness while struggling for individuality? I think each of us has another self, and I think most of us spend our entire lives looking for that--exploring our own boundaries, our individualities."

Of course twins have long been used in studies that try to distinguish the impact of genetics and environment on the self. Teplica comes down largely on the side of genetics: "If you put twins in different environments, it appears that they end up being more alike than if they'd been raised together. It's a little scary when you find two identical 89-year-old women with the same gray eyebrow hair in the same place, or two women who developed basal-cell cancer in the same spot within a year of each other. There are people who don't like my research--it takes away their belief that they're in control in their lives." Yet part of what's so powerful about the photographs is the way that, by pairing twins as if they were mirror images, Teplica foregrounds their differences. Identity places one finger from each twin side by side, displaying the similar fingerprint patterns one would expect--but close inspection reveals numerous differences. An untitled 1996 work pairs six sets of body parts--eyes, nipples, penises--in 12 prints, and again the tiny differences in hair distribution and skin folds are what capture attention.

Rather than making cute pomo jokes, Teplica views twins without irony, exploring what a human being is. (It's no surprise that the photographers he admires are such turn-of-the-century figures as Lewis Hine, Jacob Riis, and Karl Blossfeldt.) The elegant, precise detail of Teplica's prints--which he makes himself--gives all the work a prepomo authenticity, a sense of psychological depth. Subtle skin markings set against darkness give the human form the quality of a miraculous, fascinatingly complex apparition whose details are not mere accidents but harbor some truths for us all.

The two girls in The Awakening look off in different directions with wide-eyed wonder. One faces us while we see the other from the side, her profile meeting the center of the other's face. This pose, which Teplica uses often, creates another kind of fissure at the image's center, joining and dividing the twins at the same time. While these two wear similar expressions, their gazes rest in different places. Are they looking at different objects? Are they both then experiencing the same inner "awakening"? Bringing up this question without answering it, Teplica refuses to offer simple explanations of individuality and identity.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo.

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