Like many esteemed photographers, Deborah Turbeville did not have a conventional upbringing. “In my school yearbook, in the section where the other kids characterise you, under ‘Place Found’ for me they wrote, ‘In a daze.’ I have that strange Jean Rhys quality that girls do, that inability to move. I’ve had to learn to take my life, or otherwise I wouldn’t walk down the street.”
Turbeville was raised in Stoneham, Massachusetts by a Texan father and Bostonian mother who dreamed of more cosmopolitan pursuits than the ones offered by suburbia. They brought their daughter to the ballet on a regular basis, and Turbeville was on her way to becoming a choreographer when she suddenly dropped out of college and started work as a model for designer Claire McCardell. Later, she became an editor for Harper’s Bazaar. After being fired by the magazine in 1963 (she was arrested in Texas while on a shoot) Turbeville picked up a camera and started to work with Diane Arbus, the master of unsettling portraiture. She almost fell into the business of photography, and had no formal training.
By her own admission, she was never focused on clothing while working either as a model, editor or photographer; rather the atmosphere that clothing could represent. Her instinctive, initially naive approach worked to her advantage. “I would end up liking the mistakes and incorporating them into my works” she said. Her snapshot technique and faded, fuzzy figures made viewers feel as if they were intruding, stumbling on a woman’s private domain. Looking at Turbeville’s work, even today, feels slightly taboo. Speaking to Vogue in 1981, the photographer explained, “In the beginning, I went a little away from tradition and people said, “Her pictures are rather pretty, nostalgic.” I didn’t want that – I had to force it further, I wanted them to be timeless, to throw them into a time warp.”
Richard Avedon was a mentor and champion of her work – it may be his influence that led Alexander Liberman to commission her to do the Vogue swimwear shoot that would cement her reputation as one of the great fashion photographers of the ‘70s, along with Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin.
1975’s ‘There’s More to a Bathing Suit than Meets the Eye,’ now know as the ‘Bathhouse’ series, opened on a tableau of five women in the decaying shower room of the Asser Levy Public Baths on East 23rd Street in New York, seemingly in utter despair. Slumped against walls, leaning against posts, and looking moodily into the distance, the composition was considered a revelation. It was Ms Havisham chic, and sparked an immediate controversy. Women in swimsuits were then supposed to be sexy and fun, not wan and angry at any imposition. The bath house was a sacred space for women, and anyone who looked for titillation was regarded as an unwelcome intruder. This ambiguity in Turbeville’s work and her general reluctance to explain herself lent to some extreme interpretations of the text. She said, “People started talking about Auschwitz and lesbians and drugs. And all I was doing was trying to design five figures in space.”
Even her treatment of the nude body was curiously absorbed and dexualised. Her 1982 series, ‘Five Girls in a Room in Pigalle, Paris’ taken in 1982 for Vogue Italia, has a dreamy disconnection. Her nudes would never look in the camera. Instead, they are lost in contemplation, or self-regard, gazing into mirrors. One woman looks over her shoulder into the camera lens, but we are unsure if she is looking into it, or using it as a reflective surface to look back at herself. “I’ve done that all my life,” Turbeville later said. “I’m terribly narcissistic. I suppose that’s why so many of my pictures are women looking in mirrors.” There is nothing sexualised about them. It seems almost as if their clothes rotted along with the wood of the ruins – the women frozen in time while everything ages around them.
Her Vogue Italia nudes are so unlike the disembodied parts of Bourdain, or Newton’s steely, sexually liberated maidens. They are women who exist in a woman’s world. “It must be something instinctive in being a woman, that you always feel your life’s on hold a little, that you’re waiting to have something happen. The biggest emotional statement in my pictures, I think, is the waiting.” What the women are waiting for is never revealed, but it seems as though they exist outside of time. Time was a clear issue for Turbeville. “I don’t want to belong too completely to the present. There are things I love about the past. Atmosphere – I crave atmosphere the way some people crave food or sex.”
If there is romance, it is thwarted. There is no reciprocation here; not between subject and photographer, or subject and viewer. Deborah Turbeville’s woman is entirely self-contained. “The one thing that’s never left me, that falls back into my work, is that I am terribly self-conscious. I am afraid, often, of people. That is in the pictures I take – a sense almost of humiliation and embarrassment. The women look down or away – they can’t face the camera… And I can’t push the girls to look into the camera, or look like everything is great and isn’t it all terrific.”
Turbeville’s work treaded a line between the decrepit and the divine. She was an avowed fan of ruins due to their timeless quality; one could pinpoint from when a building came, but not what point in time a photograph was taken. In 1981, she managed to make Versailles look faded rather than magnificent. Jacqueline Onassis, then a book editor at Doubleday, commissioned Turbeville to take photographs of the palace as it was undergoing renovations, its opulent furniture hidden under dingy dust cloths, the sculptures dismantled and wrapped in plastic. The result was Unseen Versailles, a photobook that was only tangentially about Versailles, even less so about clothing. Some of the photographs are so abstract that they could be taken in almost any broken-down building. Models in couture gowns laze on the floor amongst dirt and debris, as if they were waiting to be packed away with the marble busts.
The faded glamour of St. Petersburg appealed to Turbeville, and she spent a decade or so splitting her time between Russia and America. She saw the city as a constant canvas, “like a studio. They offered these old palaces which were unrestored, for pennies, like the Stroganov Palace with broken floorboards and chandeliers on the floor.” In Russia, she had a career renaissance, taking photographs of ballet dancers that looked like Degas paintings come to life, of sunken-cheeked couples wracked with misery in disintegrating urban landscapes. In 2002 she was awarded a Fulbright scholarship, and taught photography in the city.
The Russia portfolio caught the eye of Vogue Italia editor Franca Sozzani, who had first met Turbeville in the early ‘80s. Sozzani remembered Turbeville as an artist. Writing her recollections of the photographer for The Guardian in 2013, Sozzani said, “I loved Deborah’s work because it was original yet recognisable. She had a style, a signature. I wanted her in the mix because she was so individual and her style was timeless, even though it was black and white. She was all about atmosphere. Even when the backdrops were not beautiful, which was often the case, she transformed them and made the decay of old buildings seem dream-like. Sometimes an art director would say that her shots were out of focus, but that was her way of making the world seem otherworldly.” She started commissioning Turbeville to do shoots for Vogue Italia, which Turbeville accepted on the proviso that she have more creative control than was usually assigned to a fashion photographer. It would be the start of a career high point, in which she dealt with atmosphere rather than product.
Turbeville was still working until her death in 2013 from lung cancer. On top of her Vogue Italia work, she was also regularly shooting campaign images for Valentino. In her later years, she also released three books; Casa No Name (2009), Past Imperfect (2009) and The Fashion Pictures (2011).
Turbeville’s work was marked by ambiguity. She almost never shot supermodels – they were a known quantity and would have detracted from the mystery of the work. Her fashion photography is unique in that it is so devoid of a clear narrative and so full of enticing clues. Turbeville capitalised on this. She hated to explain herself, preferring for her pictures to exist outside of time and place – something that is in direct opposition to the relentless trend cycle perpetuated by the fashion industry. It was also a disadvantage. Sozzani said, “ I do think her fashion photographs worked against her in the art world. She was always somehow in the middle – between the worlds of art and fashion. She never really fitted into either.”
We don’t know who Turbeville’s women were, or what they were waiting for, but it almost doesn’t matter. It is the mystery that made the photographs, and the photographer as well. Mystery was Turbeville’s legacy.
Sarah Waldron is the editor of The Coven and a freelance writer. She tweets at @Sarah___Waldron.