The Aesthete

I Am A Camera

Legendary photographer Deborah Turbeville reflects on her life in pictures and print, her first Pentax, Richard Avedon and the push from Alexander Liberman that made her famous

by William Norwich photography Bertrand Cardon

“Perhaps the most interesting thing about my photographs is that they are a little bit of an enigma; they’re hard to place...I’m working with fashion magazines; whereas in another era, I might have been an illustrator.”

—Deborah Turbeville, The Fashion Pictures, Rizzoli New York, 2011

Over the years, everyone from the tweediest museum directors to the most expressive writers on sexual politics has analyzed Deborah Turbeville’s photographs. Words like enigma, painterly, eroticism, alienation, storyteller, sensuous, sophisticated, unconventional, dreamy, feminine, feminist, romantic, Gothic, elegant, Russian, French, mysterious and melancholy have been thrown her way like laurel crowns at a royal symposium. Deborah ducks them all, and avoids labels. Quite famously (just ask her interviewers and the others who have asked), she will not explain her work. Her purpose, she will say, is not to answer questions, but to raise them.

“I’m not a romantic photographer. I want to get on people’s nerves."

I recently visited Turbeville at the apartment she has lived in since the early 1980s, an old world architectural gem on the West Side. In this spacious aerie on a high floor with large windows and late afternoon views of a cornflower-blue sky, we sat on cozy, elegant foraged furniture—pieces she has found during her travels to favorite places like France, Russia and Mexico—amid bibelots, mirrors, crosses and Russian blankets. Turbeville reminded me that the mutual friend who first introduced us nearly three decades ago, the late, great writer Christopher Hemphill, helped her find this place—just as you’d expect, with its circle shape rooms inside the building’s spires and turrets, it is like her photographs here. 

With a capacity for delight and mischief bright as the sun, Turbeville radiates interest in culture, in smart things, witty things and in you. Then there’s how she looks—couldn’t she be a sister to both Sonia Rykiel and Greta Garbo?—and how she sounds: a voice so distinctive and definitive, the hint of New England, of the Maine and Massachusetts where she grew up.

Born in Medford, Massachusetts in 1937, Turbeville first came to New York after attending the University of Georgia for a semester. Tall and thin then, as she still is today—she is wearing black leggings, a sheer black long sleeve T-shirt, and Dolce & Gabbana sandals with red tapestry tops—she found work as a model, most memorably as Claire McCardell’s sample model. McCardell “was an innovator, a genius,” who would design her clothes directly on Turbeville’s body.

After about 18 months with Miss McCardell, Turbeville went to the magazines, first to Ladies’ Home Journal as an editorial assistant, then to Harper’s Bazaar as a fashion editor. There she worked with such notable photographers as Richard Avedon and Diane Arbus. When she was fired—“a ridiculous situation…another photographer, Bob Richardson, got me in a lot of trouble” (they were arrested in Texas trespassing while doing a children’s fashion story)—she bought her first camera, a Pentax. The man at the camera shop showed her how to use it and she began taking her first pictures, liking best the ones that were soft-focused. They conveyed a feminine point of view; one that was more inner-focused that the images taken by her male counterparts and mentors.

Richard Avedon championed her. “Oh, Richard,” Turbeville said when I asked her about him. “He’s a complex character. We didn’t take pictures alike, but I know he loved my work. To this day, I have to say he looks over my shoulder a lot of the times when I am taking pictures.”

Her next job was on to Diplomat magazine and when it folded, she went to Mademoiselle. Although she was hired there as a sittings editor, she also shot the photographs for her own stories. “They’d want to do something like tennis lawn clothes and they’d say, ‘Oh, why don’t you go up to Newport and you take the pictures, very snapshot-y,’ and at that point that’s what I did.”

Then came the call from Condé Nast: “Can you be here at 3 today?’” (This is where anyone you have never heard of probably answered “no.”) “Grace has some bathing suits to photograph,” said Alexander Liberman, the creative director at Condé Nast, referring to Grace Mirabella, the editor-in-chief of Vogue.

The story would be on 10 pages—five two-page spreads rather than the more standard single pages, one bathing suit on a model per page. “I’m not very good in the studio,” Turbeville told Mr. Liberman. Not a problem. “Do something remarkable, dear. I’m expecting it,” he said. A friend suggested Turbeville consider using the Asser Levy Public Baths, built in 1904-1906, on East 23rd Street. It was the perfect place. The haunting beauty of the “Bathhouse” photographs made news. Hardly the happy summer’s day, 4th of July beach looks of bathing suit stories past; they were controversial, and even possibly subversive. They were not unanimously appreciated or understood by all of Vogue’s readers, but Turbeville never looked back. She was on a plane to Europe. Mr. Liberman sent her to photograph the collections for the next issue of Vogue.

Turbeville’s fashion pictures have always shown clothing in evocative settings, nothing ever glossy-magazine typical. They are thought-provoking narratives that express the sexual and social revolution that began in the 1970s and continues on in the war and peace of male-female relations. Some fashion historians see her as the female third in a triumvirate with Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin, although their work couldn’t be more different. This would suggest that Turbeville is an empress of fashion, but she is quick to distance herself from this laurel crown, too. A great portion of her work may have been taken for fashion, but the clothing was part of something else—containers to show how people relate to their surroundings and their place in that world. The same for the models she works with. Instead of supermodels, or the latest new “girl” everyone else is booking, she looks for people with “atmosphere,” and has never hesitated to approach a stranger in a French café, to run down an alley in Saint Petersburg to follow a face, and ask if she (or he) will help her make her pictures.

“Fashion takes itself more seriously than I do. It’s become such a big deal. It isn’t interesting to me. It’s only interesting to me in how it describes a person, but more than not, it doesn’t describe them well these days because it’s too self-conscious.”

“Fashion takes itself more seriously than I do,” Turbeville said. “It’s become such a big deal. It isn’t interesting to me. It’s only interesting to me in how it describes a person, but more than not, it doesn’t describe them well these days because it’s too self-conscious.” 

In 1979, Jacqueline Onassis, then an editor at Doubleday, commissioned Turbeville to photograph Unseen Versailles, a spellbinding portfolio of images. Reviewers swooned over how “romantic” the Versailles photographs are, but it’s a great misunderstanding to think that Turbeville’s work is only romantic, at least in any current usage of the word. “I’m not a romantic photographer,” she told me. “I want to get on people’s nerves. Eerie. Not definitively eerie like Joel-Peter Witkin…mine is a more subtle way.” When you really look, “there’s always an ulterior motive in my pictures. What I really love, if you want to say romantic and use my name, is if you are thinking of the 19th century Romantics. They were very strange people and their work was also very strange. Baudelaire? Edgar Allan Poe?” One of her favorite films, and a great inspiration, is the French director Jean Epstein classic, his 1928 film of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher.

In recent years Turbeville has won the prestigious Alfred Eisenstaedt Award for Magazine Photography and the Alfred Eisenstaedt Award for Fashion for her editorial work for W. With Stephan Lupino, she recently collaborated on an art installation, The Dance, that opened May 20th at Ralph Pucci International in New York. She is preparing an exhibition of her work at The Wapping Project in London for this fall and she is discussing, with Rizzoli, a book of her work commissioned by Italian Vogue and Casa Vogue, masterpiece photographs of the great noble families of Italy.

I ask Turbeville, who teaches and lectures mostly in Russia, what she tells her students about pursuing a career in photography, since she resists explaining her own career methodology. “I tell students to take their time and develop a vision, and that if they don’t, they will lose whatever vision they do have. I tell them to train their eye, by looking at great things—cinematography from the age when films were visual masterpieces, go to museums, look at art books no one else sees—look and look for special things until you crave it, and then crave it some more so you’re always looking.” She pauses. “It’s a lifetime’s work. Developing your vision doesn’t happen overnight—too many young photographers get lured in by the money part, and the lifestyle. Even the great names in photography, names that I won’t mention, the vision thins out. The iconic work that they do becomes available less, and they don’t care anymore.” Their cameras have become machines and their studios are now mills.

It was getting late, we said our goodbyes and we parted. I spent the rest of the night thinking about Turbeville and our visit. I think the secret of her success, and the expression of her great talent that renews itself daily, is that Deborah Turbeville lives to work, not works just to live. The process of creating art is the only life she wants. Being a big business, a brand or a retiring elder statesman whose measure is how much she sells for at auction, well, these things don’t offer enough—it’s not a recipe for right living. It doesn’t interest her.

It’s all explained in the fine print at the back of The Fashion Pictures. In a hunt and peck typewriter font, and with lots of ellipses, in the Acknowledgements, Deborah writes: “The fashion world is made up of incredibly talented people…art directors, stylists, makeup and hair artists, assistants and of course models…we always work as a team. The atmosphere surrounding fashion shoots has always created the most special and inspiring moments of my career…the thing I remember most, the work in progress…I hope that you all have understood that…and I thank you for the privilege of having worked with you.”

I can report that the feeling is mutual.


Editor's Note: Previously unpublished photos courtesy of Bertrand Cardon. Main image: Deborah Turbeville shooting Aurélia Weingarten in Paris for Vogue Italia, 1985.

Additional Editor's Note: The Aesthete is saddened by the loss of a legend. Deborah Turbeville's pioneering vision for fashion photography translated into an enigmatic, deeply intellectual kind of beauty that changed the industry forever. We are grateful to have had the opportunity to feature her on The Aesthete earlier this year. Our thoughts are with her family and loved ones.