A Unique Force in Contemporary Fashion Photography
Deborah Turbeville was a unique force and talent in contemporary fashion photography. When she died in 2013 the art world lost an exceptionally unique and prescient voice. She created a remarkable body of work and pointedly disregarded the standard ideas of beauty, engagement and fashion. In her New York Times Obituary, Margalit Fox wrote that, “She was the only woman, and the only American in the triumvirate (the others were Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin) that by wide critical consensus changed fashion photography from sedate to shocking.”
A Mystic and Misty World
Though her aesthetic was sometimes labeled as dark, she was truly a romantic and independent image maker. Turbeville brought viewers into her mystic and misty world which seemed more connected to the 19th century Beaux Art movement than to a world of privilege, wealth and up-to-the moment fashion that was the vision of other modern fashion photographers. The old salons, bath-houses and chateaus selected as backdrops for her images made her work all the more intriguing.
Stepping into a Photograph
When Jodi and I met with her we were invited to her spacious upper west side New York Apartment for tea. Stepping into her home felt just like stepping into one of her photographs with its well-worn overstuffed furniture, billowing thread-bare drapes, pealing layers of paint over baroque molding, and intricate parquet floors. The soft half-light streaming through her windows were reminiscent of her photographs with their soft, hazy light and furnishings that were past their primes. It was as if we walked into a Marcel Proust novel.
Three Nudes Portfolio
The “Three Nudes Portfolio” marks the only portfolio Turbeville ever made. It was photographed at the Luxor Bath House in South of France in 1986. True to her form, the model is photographed from the back in the late afternoon light as she sees her reflection in an antique oversized mirror. Turbeville was deliberate in her selection of subjects, opting for unrecognizable models, rather than known faces. Her sitters seldom, if ever, engage with the camera. The model seems unaware of our gaze and inhabits a space that was at one time elegant and grand, but is now mysterious and exists, as do the photographs, in suspended time. In the signature style of Turbeville, the palette is warm with saturated light and an accepting grace of taking 3 images of a model engaged in self-observation and reflection.
As a portfolio, the three studies create a composite vision that is both languid and gentle. Time is magically halted, the ambiance is dream-like and we gaze with tender observation at a romantically beautiful memory.