Masters Series: Deborah Turbeville

Deborah Turbeville and her fashion photography was always a source of inspiration to me from the very beginning. Her out-of-focus, dreamy photographs were mesmerizing. Although she was known as the “anti-Helmut Newton”, she still was one of my mentors, someone whose work I studied carefully and tried to emulate when I was first starting out. While Newton’s work was very sexual and strong, Deborah Turbeville captured sensuality and romance, while still being every bit as impactful as Helmut Newton.

 THE NUDE IN VOGUE 1967

THE NUDE IN VOGUE 1967

In the early ‘60’s, Deborah worked as an editorial assistant and then fashion editor for several different magazines, including Harper’s Bazaar. Her quest for styling fashion shoots that were “different and unusual” actually got her fired. After being fired from Harper’s Bazaar, she took a job at the much smaller Diplomat Magazine where she continued to struggle to realize her vision. That’s when she decided that instead of styling the editorials, she was going to start shooting them. She walked into a camera store, bought a camera and had the salesman show her how to load the film! And thus began her amazing journey and career as a fashion photographer.

 MARIE PIOVESAN BY DEBORAH TURBEVILLE FOR VOGUE ITALIA

MARIE PIOVESAN BY DEBORAH TURBEVILLE FOR VOGUE ITALIA

In 1972 she moved to Europe and started her work as a freelance photographer, shooting for Vogue and Marie-Claire to name a few. After picking up a camera, she was finally able to actualize her potential and shoot what she found visually beautiful. She revolutionized fashion photography with her avant-garde imagery. During an interview in 2012, she said; “It started because of the way I used the camera. I had a very soft-focus lens. And I liked high-grade films that were very grainy. A lot of times there were big mistakes…But I would end up liking the mistakes and incorporating them into my work. And I became known for it.” Franca Sozzani, editor of Italian Vogue, wrote in the introduction of Turbeville’s 2009 book, Past Imperfect, “Every detail is perfect and yet wrong at the same time.” Maybe it’s this complexity that makes her work so intriguing.

The New York Times singled her out as the only American in a triumvirate – also including Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton – that had brought “eeriness, shock, and alienation” to the formerly pleasant and pretty business of selling clothes. In 1975 she gained worldwide attention with her Bathouse series, five women wearing swimsuits and bathrobes, apathetic to the camera and wearing the jadedness of jetsetters. While some people were outraged, calling the photographs too similar to Auschwitz, Deborah claims she had no idea the photographs would cause such a stir!

 BATHOUSE SERIES BY DEBORAH TURBEVILLE FOR VOGUE MAY 1975

BATHOUSE SERIES BY DEBORAH TURBEVILLE FOR VOGUE MAY 1975

Despite the scandal, Vogue worked with Turbeville quite a lot. As is quoted on Vogue.com, “her subjects seemed to be searching for something; for all the photographs’ painterly graininess and soft-focus, they’re positively saturated with enigma and eroticism.”

I think that’s where the parallels to Newton existed for me as a young photographer. Both photographers shot eroticism, they both just handled it in completely different ways. After looking at both of their work, after 30+ years, now I can see where Newton’s work was very much from a masculine perspective and Turbeville’s was from a feminine perspective.

Along with Deborah Turbeville’s editorial and advertising assignments, she also published a number of books including Maquillage (1975), Wallflower (1978), and Unseen Versailles (1981). She fell in love with Russia and has photographed many times there, utilizing the incredibly magnificent palaces that are scattered throughout the country. She bought a house in Mexico in the ‘80’s and started a series of work that was exhibited in the US and Europe. Turbeville also taught photography in St. Petersburg for a brief time.

 FOR VOGUE ITALIA JULY 2010

FOR VOGUE ITALIA JULY 2010

I think the reason that Deborah Turbeville has always stood out for me as one of my favorite photographers is that she stayed true to her vision and didn’t compromise. Her choice of working with a 35mm camera and her use of natural lighting was a huge departure in the rules that were solid at the time she started. She even used to scratch her negatives to give them a timeless feel. Her color palettes were soft and looked like paintings. In fact, it’s this painterly quality that pulls me in every time I see her work.

Deborah Turbeville recently passed away in New York City. As we launch BREED I felt it important to showcase her work and her story. Not only was she very vital to my own work when I was starting out, she is indeed a master and her work will continue to live on, captivating many others for eternity. (God bless her and her vision!)

Melissa Rodwell