Deborah Turbeville, a fashion photographer, always claimed that she wanted to blur the boundaries between fashion and art. Her early avant-garde works back in the 1970s were strikingly different – melancholic, unsettling and technically imperfect: grainy, overexposed, and cropped in unusual ways. They changed fashion photography from clean and predictable into dark and strange.
I met Deborah last summer. She invited me to her beautiful place in Ansonia, on Upper West Side, when I had asked her to meet for an interview. Entering the apartment of Turbeville was like entering the settings of one of her photographs: tinted light, dark furniture, heavy drapery, large bronze chandelier in the living room… Turbeville was fascinated with the “atmosphere” and “mood” that were also the key elements of her images. As she sat in the heavy leather chair only half of her face was softly lit.
Deborah looked mysterious and a little distant and it reminded me of the kind of look the models in her images usually had. In her photographs she constructed her own reality – she chose desolated places, whether grotesque bath houses or on the contrary aristocratic palaces and gardens, and picked unusually looking models. Clothing never seemed to be the subject of Turbeville’s images, as it typically is in fashion photography.
Her visual language was dreamy, poetic and charged with emotional tension. “It seems there is a narrative in your images,” I told her, “but we don’t know what the story is.” “That is exactly what I want my works to be”, she said, “I like to build up a mystery, but not finish it”.
Born in Boston and having received extensive training in ballet and theater, Turbeville didn’t plan on becoming a photographer. She moved to New York when she was 20 and early in her career worked for the fashion designer Clair McCardell. In the mid 60s she became an editor of Harper’s Bazaar and then of Mademoiselle. “It was the dynamic atmosphere and brilliant photographers around that made me think it would be an interesting thing to do—taking fashion photographs”, Deborah said. Richard Avedon was among the first who suggested Turbeville should start photographing.
In the mid 70s her images were already published alongside Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Her style however was distinctly different from her contemporaries and more reminiscent of early “primitive” photography of Eugene Atget, George Brassai, August Sander and Henry Lartigue. She often scratched and tore her negatives, or used sepia and black and white tones to make the photographs look aged.
As we were sitting in a baroque environment of her home I asked Deborah what influenced her visual style. She started talking about her profound interest in literature; Dostoevsky, Tolstoi, Proust, Henry James, Flaubert, and Virginia Wolf. She then pointed to the room behind her, which was full with shelves of tapes and DVDs, claiming that cinema had been another major influence—in particular silent films of the 20s and 30s as well as German expressionism and Russian Cinema. Remarkably, in photography Turbeville was self-taught.
She had a very distinct aesthetic vision which was far from banal and obvious, but rather rooted in experimentalism and the avant-garde. Her soft focus misty images, where time and space was never identified, created an overall mood of longing and suspense. She favored haunted looking and deserted locations, empty streets, abandoned houses, and uninhabited palaces. Women in her settings often looked lost and thoughtful, as well as playful and mysterious.
“I never wanted to be too commercial” Deborah said.
In late 70s she moved to Paris, where she lived 5 years, feeling that it was the only way to stay truthful to her visual style. There Turbeville was contacted by Jacqueline Onassis and was offered to work on a special project—a series of photographs capturing the secret and hidden rooms of Versailles that visitors never see. She later won an American Book Award for “Unseen Versailles” (1981).
Over the years she did several books, among them: Deborah Turbeville: The Fashion Pictures (2011), Past Imperfect (2009), Casa no Name (2009), Studio St. Petersburg (1997), Newport Remembered (1994), and Wallflower (1978).
Among her clients there were many renowned design brands including Ralph Lauren, Vera Wang, Nike, and Valentino. Her photographs appeared at the NY Times, American, German, Italian Vogue, W magazine and others. And yet if you asked her, Turbeville didn’t completely feel comfortable being called a fashion photographer. “No matter what I photograph I would still be called a fashion photographer”, she laughed, “There is not much you can do about it, it is like beating a dead horse.”
Turbeville, who in the beginning seemed very reserved, was in fact a very open and frank person, passionate about life and art. She talked about rich textures of the palace in Sicily where she shot a recent Valentino campaign; she passionately discussed her favorite Russian and Ukrainian directors and writers, as well as the latest exhibitions that inspired her most (photography of Miroslav Tichy and paintings of Seurat). “You have to do a lot of things in order to be a good photographer” she said, “You need to be observant, you need to read, you need to be curious and be inspired by things”.
When our meeting was over I walked down the carpeted spacious hallways of Turbeville’s building thinking about what it meant to be a good photographer. I was thinking about her images, that didn’t seem to belong to this world. I stepped outside and beautiful summer sunset filled the streets. I could never have known that this would never happen again.
Turbeville died on October 24th 2013.
By Masha Froliak