The effect of Deborah Turbeville’s fashion photography work is one of dreamlike, melancholy beauty. Her images exude an almost palpable sense of longing with questions about the woeful women they depict. Who are they? Why are they so sad?
In the 1970’s, when I was a student of photography, my father gave me a wonderful coffee table book called WOMEN ON WOMEN. It featured a collection of photographs by 12 prominent female photographers showing various facets of contemporary womanhood. No two artists in WOMEN ON WOMEN portrayed the same world and each vision was strikingly subjective and intimate.
Inscribed on the inside cover of WOMEN ON WOMEN, my father had written:
Dear Arleen, one day there will be a book with all your great photographs.
After deciding what my passion in photography was, I got a certificate in phototherapy.
In 1991, I was invited to be a panelist and deliver a talk on The Creative and Therapeutic Value of Photography in Child and Youth Care at The International Child and Youth Care Conference in Montreal. I was a guest lecturer at Vanier College in the Photography and Special Care Counselling Departments and taught and implemented Photo/Darkroom programs as a catalyst for youth in residential care helping them to communicate spontaneously and develop a greater sense of pride and self-esteem.
In 1984 I designed and taught Discovering Photo 1 and Photo 11 to youngsters 11-16 years old at Dawson College in Montreal.
My passion as a photographer was to create workshops for children, emphasizing their personal vision and freedom of expression.
But, I digress.
If I had chosen a career in fashion photography, I would have tried to emulate Deborah Turbeville. Her photographs stood out in the fashion world for their surrealistic and cinematic qualities.
She almost single-handedly turned fashion photography from a clean, well-lighted thing into something dark, brooding and suffused with sensual strangeness. She was the only woman, and the only American, in the triumvirate with Helmet Newton and Gary Bourdin, according to critical consensus, who changed fashion photography from sedate to shocking.
In mid-20th-century America, fashion photography was about fashion. The clothes were front and center, with the models chosen for their well-scrubbed, patrician femininity. They looked as if they had just come from tennis at the country club free of sweat.
Turbeville’s photos, by contrast, were unsettling, and they meant to be. In her fashion work, clothes were almost beside the point. In some images the outfits are barely visible; the same is often true of the models.
She literally manipulated her negatives—scratching them, tearing them, scattering dust on them and otherwise distressing them.
She faded colour, black-and-white and sepia tones; her prints were often deliberately overexposed.
The settings were as striking as the subjects. She favoured places like grimy, deserted streets, abandoned warehouses and in the image that nearly 40 years ago horrified the public and cemented her reputation, a decrepit New York bathhouse.
Deborah Turbeville was born in Stoneham, Mass on July 6, 1932. As a young woman she moved to New York, where she was an assistant and sample model. Afterward she held editorial positions at Harper’s Bazaar and Mademoiselle. She deplored the work.
She began taking photos on her own in the 1960’s, having no previous instruction, enrolled in a six-month workshop taught by Richard Avedon and the art director Marvin Israel.
‘If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have taken my photography seriously, she told Times Magazine in 1981. ‘It was so out of focus and terrible. The first evening in class, they held up pictures. They said, ‘It isn’t important to have technique, but you have to have an idea or inspiration, and we feel the only one who has is this person who’s never taken a photograph before.’
‘I became very unpopular in the class.’
Turbeville’s photographs have appeared in magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and in advertisements for clients like Ralph Lauren, Bruno Magli, Nike, Macy’s and Bloomingdales. She has exhibited all over the world and in books including Unseen Versailles (1981), a collection of her photos of the hidden, dusty spaces underpinning Louis XIV’s grand palace.
Turbeville won an American Book Award for Unseen Versailles, a project which she had been recruited by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, then an editor at Doubleday.
Deborah Turbeville died in October, 2013 of lung cancer. She was 81 years old.
Though images like Turbeville’s which included pale, haunted-eyed models in decrepit buildings are practically de rigueur in fashion photography today, they were almost beyond contemplation when she began her work in the early 1970’s.