Deborah Turbeville is an enigmatic woman who doesn’t fit well within the typical jobbing fashion photographer mould. Her photographs are heavy in their sombreness, atmospherically frayed and aged and often following a narrative that only Turbeville, as a consummate storyteller, understands.
In this impressively cultivated Rizzoli book lies the very best of Turbeville’s fashion photography, edited by the woman herself. All words are hers, except for a glowing foreward by Vogue Italia editrix Franca Sozzani, who describes Turbeville as a ‘poet of photography’ (and rightly so). You’d be forgiven for not having heard of Turbeville, but to ignore her would be foolish. Although her particular brand of sinister anxiety and brooding may have fallen out of fashion, the quality and originality of her work means that she just hasn’t been appreciated properly – although this may change with the release of this book and the recent work she executed for the Valentino campaigns.
Turbeville is at heart a deconstructivist storyteller – she is constantly disseminating images or provoking said dissemination in others. Her works are “little open-ended stories that led you on but yet were incomplete, a bit like silent films… Thus I began a pattern I would follow all my life… a sort of work in progress”. It’s Turbeville’s ‘work-in-progress’ ethic that lets her work evolve into something totally unexpected and alien from it’s original starting point.
Hers are snapshots without explanation – they are open-ended in the eye of the beholder. For Turbeville, atmosphere dictates the picture. Photographs seem almost DIY, but still refined. They are scratched, worn or burned, but all the more beautiful for that. Her bathhouse series is still as disturbing today as it was when it first appeared. Ostensibly a swimwear shoot in an early 20th century bathhouse, the photographs have an air of foreboding despite its total lack of obscenity. The impact is in what it doesn’t say. Is her Woman in the Woods series about World War 2 collaborators? The models are lined up in woodlands or against bales of hay as if for a firing squad, passively miserable faces on each one. Turbeville remains enigmatic on the subject.
The book covers highlights from Turbeville’s career from 1970 to the present, all varied, all beautiful, but all products of a broken, post-apocalyptic world. The haute couture is a reflection of a world gone by, the woman all waiting for some hallowed time to come again – all to no avail. Her photos of Russian ballet dancers are what I imagine a Degas painting would look like if it was a photograph – wistful, beautiful, elegant, snatches of a moment. Turbeville’s scrapbook style, photographs piled in on one another organically, sometimes scratched or blurred almost beyond recognition, go well with the handwritten titles and typewriter fonts. It’s like a luxurious, hardback zine, the product of one utterly original and painfully personal vision.
At the end, Turbeville lets us in and tells us a story of tragedy and intrigue. And on the very last page, she shuts the door on us again.
Deborah Turbeville: The Fashion Pictures is published by Rizzoli and is out now.