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Deborah Turbeville
Deborah Turbeville

Deborah Turbeville

Country: United States
Birth: 1938 | Death: 2013

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. 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. Like her near contemporaries, Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin, she rethought and recast fashion photography in the 1970s. Perhaps even more than those two louche Europeans, though, 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. She has photographed her own house in Mexico as if she were a time-travelling visitor in her own intimate landscape, slightly drunk in exploration and contemplation of the rooms and their objects - tin retablos, wooden boxes, a painted carving of the Virgin Saint Maria Candelaria. She has photographed old Newport and the lost St Petersburg. One of her books was called 'Les Amoureuses du Temps Passe' - (female) lovers of times past. 'The idea of disintegration is really the core of my work.' When Jackie Onassis commissioned her to photograph the unseen Versailles, the late 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. She came to photography late. Arriving in New York at 19, with dreams of a stage career, 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, working 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 magazine. She took some pictures for Vogue of girls in bikinis at a cement works. 'The most revolutionary pictures of the time,' said Conde Nast's editorial director Alexander Liberman. The work that made her name was the 'bathhouse' series she took for American Vogue in 1975 - fashion photographs of barely dressed women, wet and languid, almost kitsch. The oddest thing, though, is the sense that the women 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. The bathouse 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. Yet she's a jobbing photographer, too. She's worked for 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. 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 o'clock. 'I'm a voyeur,' she said.

(Source: Pete Silverton - www.professionalphotographer.co.uk)

 

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