Icons of Photography: Deborah Turbeville

Deborah Turbeville was born in 1938, in Boston. Summers were spent in Ogunquit, Maine. ‘Beautiful Place by the Sea’ is the oceanside township’s motto. ‘Very bleak, very stark, very beautiful,’ was Turbeville’s description of it. There is more than a suggestion in her work and life that the family summer home in this New England seaside town is her Rosebud. ‘Since then I have always had to have mystery and atmosphere in my life,’ she has said of Ogunquit. ‘They draw me out more than anything.’ Nostalgia is her defining emotional state. Maybe even nostalgia for nostalgia. Her pictures are dream-like states, in love with doubt and confusion.

Her early life was comfortable – she went to private school. Yet her mother described her as a ‘shy and scary child’. Which is as it should be. The uneasy shuffle of ambiguity is the essence of Turbeville and her work – which itself shuffles between fashion magazine and art gallery, never fully at peace in either place. Her fashion work, she says, is always done ‘with tongue in cheek’.

Like her near contemporaries, Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin, she rethought and recast fashion photography in the 1970s. Even more than those two louche Europeans, she injected narrative and mystery into what is, after all, an unabashedly commercial process. Her pictures are as much riddles as they are images. Consciously damaged goods, they are blurry, grainy, tormented into painterly colours, scratched, marked, sellotaped – post-production work often done with her long-term assistant and collaborator Sharon Schuster. ‘I destroy the image after I’ve made it,’ said Turbeville. ‘Obliterate it a little so you never have it completely there.’

It’s a quite un-American world, a view through the rear window, fascinated by the beaten, worn and forgotten. Foggy Venice, the gardens at Cliveden gardens (where the Profumo scandal of the 1960s took flight), a palazzo in Mantua (where Bertolucci shot his baroque communist epic 1900). She has photographed her own house in Mexico as if she were a slightly drunk time-travelling visitor in her own intimate landscape, exploring and contemplating her rooms and their objects – tin retablos, wooden boxes, a painted carving of the Virgin Saint Maria Candelaria.

She came to photography late. A ‘tall, gangly girl’, she arrived in New York at 19, with dreams of a stage career. Instead, she worked as a model and assistant to Claire McCardell – the fashion designer who brought wool jersey and denim to the catwalk. She joined Harper’s Bazaar in 1963 and worked closely with its fashion editor, Marvin Israel, and his crew of photographers which included Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon and Hiro.

She took her first pictures in Yugoslavia in 1966. They were blurry. She showed them to Avedon. He liked them, blurs and all. So he taught her technique. In 1972, she became a photographer. Like other adventurous photographers of the era, she worked for Nova. She took some pictures for Vogue of girls in bikinis at a cement works. ‘The most revolutionary pictures of the time,’ said Condé Nast’s then editorial director Alexander Liberman.

Along with Sarah Moon, she made fashion pictures which both reflected and created the mid-1970s nostalgia for the aesthetics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries – with its achings for art deco, for languid women, for Edwardian summers and Gatsby autumns.

The work that made her name was the ‘Bath House’ series she took for American Vogue in 1975 – fashion photographs of barely dressed women, wet and languid, almost kitsch. Though shot in New York, at an abandoned bathhouse on E23rd St, they bring to mind the 19th century engravings of ‘hysterical’ young women at Charcot’s clinic in the Salpêtrière hospital, Paris. That is where Freud first began to formulate his revolutionary ideas about the self and sexuality – the two poles of Turbeville’s Bath House pictures. There is the sense that the women in the pictures are prisoners – of what is not clear, of course. It’s been said they look like they’re in gas chambers. ‘I go into a women’s private world, where you never go,’ Turbeville said. ‘It’s a moment frozen in time. I like to hear a clock ticking in my pictures.’

If one of photography’s most honourable impulses is to subvert – or flee from – the medium’s inherent voyeurism, Turbeville collapses this paradox by succumbing to it. Victorian academic paintings presented unclothed women in bathing pools as if the painter were not there – the illusion of pornography. Turbeville’s naked, wet women are under no such illusion. They know the photographer is there. They acknowledge her presence. They maybe even watch us, the viewer.

There is something of Freud’s notion of the Uncanny in her work – the unfamiliarity of the familiar, the sense of death in life. Sometimes – or rather, often – her women – her girls, rather – seem like zombies. Not dead or reborn but beyond life. You can find yourself thinking of ETA Hoffman’s Copelia, the doll who comes to life – and the poor sap who falls for her.

The Bath House pictures were collected, with others, in her 1978 book Wallflower – arrestingly and sympathetically designed by her mentor, Israel. In it are all the essentials of her work: a feeling that you are somewhere in the past; a languid, barely sexual sexuality; white, willowy women; distressed prints; a luminous quality; a sense of a narrative interrupted. ‘I say yes to style, yes to mood, yes to ambiguity,’ she has said.

She has photographed old Newport and the lost St Petersburg. One of her books was called Les Amoureuses du Temps Passé – (female) lovers of times past. ‘The idea of disintegration is really the core of my work.’ When, in 1979, Jackie Onassis commissioned her to photograph the unseen Versailles, the late US president’s wife urged the photographer to ‘evoke the feeling that there were ghosts and memories.’ Turbeville began by researching the palace’s ‘mistresses and discarded mistresses’, then photographed not just the palace’s grand chambers and vistas but its store rooms and attics. ‘I could see all these women hibernating away in these little rooms, waiting for something to happen. The past, which is so colourful, is buried in those walls.’

Yet she’s a jobbing photographer, too. She’s worked for W, L’Uomo Vogue, Zoom, American Vogue and its British, French, Italian, and Russian counterparts. She’s done ads for Ungaro, editorial photographic essays for Harper’s Bazaar and portraits of Julia Roberts for the New York Times Magazine. In 2012, for Italian Vogue, she photographed Valentino clothes – on paper thin young girls seemingly imprisoned in an abandoned factory.

She wears black, mostly. She has reddish hair. She has homes in Mexico, New York and Russia. She teaches in Russia. She’s been married at least once. When she lived in Paris, at the turn of the 1980s, she’d rummage through the streets every evening, between 6 and 8. ‘I’m a voyeur,’ she said.

Deborah Turbeville died in 2013.

© Peter Silverton 2019

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