A tribute to the iconic photographer Deborah Turbeville, who sadly passed away on Thursday.
After a few days spent out of town, I was saddened to hear of the passing of iconic fashion photographer Deborah Turbeville. According to the New York Times, the photographer, 81, died in Manhattan on Thursday due to lung cancer. I had the pleasure of interviewing Deborah in 2011 for Russh magazine, and again last year for a profile in Art / Fashion, and on both occasions she was generous, engaged and very opinionated about her craft, which I really liked about her. Here, a piece I wrote (with my co-author Alison Kubler).
Revolutionary fashion photographer Deborah Turbeville has produced not only a considerable body of work over a career that spans nearly half a century, but an entirely new style of photography that she continues to develop and perfect. She locates the inspiration for her distinctive artistic approach in her fashion work, rather than the other way around. ‘I’ve developed a personal style through taking fashion photographs, and I think that I’m unique in that because most people put aside fashion when they go to shoot what they call their private work.’
Turbeville’s photography for fashion magazines and clients isn’t conventional. She attracted the ire of some conservative readers for her groundbreaking Bathhouse series, which was published in Vogue in 1975. ‘My fashion photography was [then considered] unorthodox’, explains Turbeville of her early work. ‘The girls weren’t normal-looking fashion models and the environments were totally different to what photographers were using at the time.’ Turbeville’s advertising campaign for Valentino’s Spring/Summer 2012 collection [above] was designed to be ‘more personal in the way the models look. They want an identity, to stand out, and for there to be a real woman behind the clothes.’
Turbeville’s signature style initially developed in opposition to that of her male contemporaries, most prominently Helmut Newton. ‘I don’t direct models in the way most photographers do, or at all,’ she says. She rarely uses photography studios for sittings, and employs lighting, mist and smoke to create a sense of immobility and emotional distance. The natural palette that prevails as a result of Turbeville’s avoidance of rich colour and photographic clarity adds depth and mystery to her work, further enhanced by her habit of scratching, taping and writing on negatives when shooting on film (although she increasingly uses digital photography for fashion commissions due to time constraints and the limited availability of traditional chemicals and papers).
It is possible to view the mood of her work as nostalgic, but the emotional distance that Turbeville places between herself and her subjects – the result of which is a somewhat icy aesthetic – creates a sense not of nostalgia but of timelessness, of scenes without specific context, where one might discover real beauty in isolation. ‘It’s not as if I’m thinking specifically about a moment from the 1930s’, says Turbeville, explaining that because the magazines she works with – Italian Vogue, L’Uomo Vogue and the New York Times Magazine – understand her aesthetic approach ‘the clothes I’m given [for the shoots] are sympathetic to my style, so generally they’re things that do look a little out of their time.’ Turbeville’s unique aesthetic has never been successfully replicated, but it has certainly paved the way for contemporary practitioners to present more ethereal, even ‘feminine’ visions in fashion photography.