Deborah Turbeville Anh Duong and Marie-Sophie in Emanuel Ungaro, VOGUE, Chateau Raray, France, 1984

Deborah Turbeville: blurry inspiring fashion

by Michele Seghieri

Deborah Turbeville is a major inspiration for a lot of photographers. Her legacy still rings in the world of photography, and she has the credit for transforming fashion into avant-garde art.

She’s in my All-Time Top 3, and she has greatly inspired me. For this reason, I would like to share something about her photographic style and why she changed her approach to fashion photography.

Turbeville images don’t want to sell a product and don’t describe clothing and accessories. They illustrate a mysterious world similar to ours but different. For some reason, we reject that reality, but we are unconsciously afraid it’s the same one we live in.

That’s why her style survives time and transcends trends.

Introduction

Deborah Turbeville was an American photographer; her works have appeared in major fashion magazines, such as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire, and many others. She’s considered fundamental in any historical analysis of modern photography. She represents, together with Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin, the new wave of photography of the seventies.

Turbeville early life

Deborah Turbeville was born in 1932 in Stoneham, Massachusetts, into a wealthy New England family. 

Her family was both determined to be distinguished and yet isolated from others.

Turbeville’s mother and aunts inherited a large house in the outer limits of Boston from their paternal grandfather. Deborah lived there in this familial community, and the father too. She had an older brother, Tom, who resided in New York then.

Members of this particular family cultivated their intellectual superiority by frequent visits to Boston’s Opera and cinemas. Nevertheless, they all suffered from this exile in the suburbs.

She studied at Brimmer and May School in the Bay of Boston. 

How her career started

Turbeville moved to New York after her schooling to work in the theater. The iconic American Fashion designer Claire McCardell discovered and hired Deborah as an assistant and house model.

This job let Turbeville meet the famed editor of Harper’s Bazaar, Diana Vreeland. Their relationship led to Turbeville being offered a job as an editor at the magazine.

The first approach to photography

She was disillusioned with Harper’s Bazaar and later Mademoiselle. In the 1960s, she purchased a Pentax camera with a Zeiss lens and began experimenting with photography. She participated in a workshop by Richard Avedon and Mavin Israel in 1966. Her photography career began after their tutelage, working primarily for fashion magazines, though she didn’t consider herself a fashion photographer.

Magazines such as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Nova, and the New York Times Magazine featured her editorial fashion shoots. She also worked with fashion brands such as Comme des Garçons, Guy Laroche, and Valentino.

Deborah Turbeville - Bath House Vogue US 1975
Bath House Vogue US, 1975.

The avant-garde fashion photography

In 1975, she created the Bath House series as part of a swimsuit photoshoot for Vogue Magazine. It featured five models slouching and stretching in an abandoned bathhouse. A public outcry ensued due to the image’s nature, unlike the time’s statism.

Unabated, Turbeville continued to express a distinctive aura of decay in her images. She routinely distress her printed photographs to give them an aged, slightly disintegrated appearance, further amplified by printing with faded colors and sepia. Also, she frequently creates collages of her work, which turn her images into physical art objects.

Unseen Versailles. Doubleday, 1981. Introduction by Louis Auchincloss.
Unseen Versailles. Doubleday, 1981.

Unseen Versailles

In 1981, the editor of Doubleday, Jaqueline Onassis, commissioned Turbeville to photograph the Palace of Versailles. Her photos mainly focused on the disused rooms that were off-limits to tourists. The result was a masterpiece: the Unseen Versailles book. Thanks to her rare look into the palace’s decaying grandeur, she won an American Book Award, among other awards.

Deborah Turbeville Autumn Leaves inside the Pavillon Français, from Unseen Versailles 1980.
Autumn Leaves inside the Pavillon Français, from Unseen Versailles 1981.

In addition, Turbeville published several renowned books on her photography, including Newport Remembered (1994), Studio St. Petersburg (1997), Casa No. Name (2009), and The Fashion Pictures (2011).

Turbeville photographic style

Deborah Turbeville revolutionized the editorial canons of fashion with a melancholy fairy tale and feminine aesthetic. She never defined herself as a fashion photographer, much less a portraitist.

If you analyze her production, you immediately notice the coarse grain and the soft focus. But what distinguishes Turbeville’s photographs is the lack of elements that would unquestionably classify them as fashion images. These elements are just ingredients of the general atmosphere. Clothing no longer symbolizes social status and is not the image’s main subject. The main focus is the totality of some significant factors:

  • environment
  • atmosphere
  • models
  • clothes

None of these factors prevails over the others.

She places the human figure in an undefined frame. At the same time, the human figure seems immersed in an impatient wait for something or someone, unaffected by the passing of time.

The Turbeville revolution

Fashion photography was very static in the 70s. Deborah Turbeville changed the fashion approach and took photos of her inner vision. She was looking for something she had never found during her years as a photo editor.

Her images don’t want to sell a product and don’t describe clothing and accessories. But they illustrate a mysterious world similar to ours but different. For some reason, we reject that reality, but we are unconsciously afraid it’s the same one we live in.

That’s why her style survives time and transcends trends.

In an era where the diffusion of photography and visual advertising grows big, people don’t want to see images showing just beautiful products. They want to see what they represent. Deborah Turbeville’s reality attracts us because we can identify with it through the emotions it makes us feel. It’s not a mere representation of beauty but the representation of the sublime.

Traviata. Pani magazine April 2010.

It’s all a matter of time and non-time

Time is a central topic of Deborah Turbeville’s photography composition, shooting phase, and the subsequent steps. She overexposes, tears, folds, and hangs prints on the wall with staples and drawing pins, to make them seem worn out over time.

Turbeville has her images undergo conceptually and physically, to the passing of time, without hiding their fragility. She whitens and scratches the surfaces of the photographs, deliberately evoking the past and the feeling of nostalgia rooted in pictorialism. Photographic positives, obtained from overlapping negatives, suggest the deceptiveness of memory, fusing different images of the past into a homogeneous substance.

Inspiration and the role of woman

Many of Turbeville’s photographs are a continual quote from Classical and Renaissance Art. She takes inspiration from the greatest painters in art history. The result is blurred mysterious frames in which characters appear as ghosts on an unspeakable background. Models pose in indoor environments resembling ancient glories squandered or outside in a forest, garden, or old ruin. It’s a continuing quote from classical and renaissance art. Deborah Turbeville describes the woman’s body by referring to the Baroque painting of Velasquez and Goya and the Modern Baroque of Frida Khalo. Steatopygic curves shift attention to the procreative role of women. They manifest in using middle-aged women with different body proportions from the predominant youthful freshness of contemporary Pop Culture.

Deborah Turbeville Parco 1964
Parco, 1964.

Opposites attract

Her works show an unusual coupling of opposite traits, such as tenderness and aggression, romanticism and eroticism, lyricism and irony. Turbeville stages her images in a rigid theatricality that refers to one of her favorite directors: Ingmar Bergman. They seem to be parallel realities influenced by a melancholy dream in which the models lie like lifeless dolls.

Technical aspects of Turbeville photography

Her photography technique is characterized by:

  • Basically use only 35mm film cameras
  • Harsh grain
  • Blur and soft-focus
  • Faded and overexposed prints
  • collages
  • Overlapping negative
  • Taping and scraping film and prints
  • colorizing
  • Sepia toning or colorizing

Deborah Turbeville submits her images, conceptually and physically, to the passage of time, without hiding their fragility. She bleaches out and scratches the surfaces of the photographs, deliberately evoking the past and a feeling of nostalgia, which seems rooted in pictorialism. Photographic positives, obtained from overlapping negatives, suggest the deceptiveness of memory, fusing different images of the past into a homogeneous substance.

Fundamental to her expressive ability is also her color management. Use very soft, almost monochromatic shades, which often affect the choice of the background scene. It combines color, setting, atmosphere, and light in a refined combination that transforms commercial photography into art. 

Sitography

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