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Deborah Turbeville: The Fashion Pictures

The esteemed photographer’s first book dedicated to her fashion career unearths the stories behind the influential pictures

One might wonder what defines a fashion picture to Deborah Turbeville – there’s seldom a clear distinction whether she’s shooting a Balenciaga collection or a Venetian family, an editorial for one of the Vogues or a masquerade in a Russian theatre. But from the New England-raised photographer comes another wonderful monograph essential in enriching one’s experience with her work, the slow burners that they are.

'Deborah Turbeville: The Fashion Pictures' reveals what makes her one of the world’s most acclaimed photographers – despite a career spanning 40-odd years, she retains a strong conviction to her vision whether in its historic or artistic value, or its successful transcendence of time and classification. Nailing it in the book’s foreword, Franca Sozzani says, ‘Her pictures are not about fashion, even though she respects fashion.’ Behind the enigmatic photographs, we find a spritely 73-year-old eager to share the unconventional beauty she sees.

Dazed Digital: What motivated a book on your fashion photography after all these years?
Deborah Turbeville:
A few of the books I’ve done before have some of the fashion photographs but converted and reinvented, so I never really felt the need to do one. But suddenly, the publisher I work with asked me if I would do a fashion book. It was quite simple, so I did it.

DD: How do you define what your fashion pictures are and what should go into the book?

Deborah Turbeville: I’ve always said that I use fashion photography for my work and that I look at it through that prism. But I never look at it saying, ‘Gee, I’ve got five pages of Givenchy…’ So it was recognised and appreciated by some, detested by others. I used The Fashion Pictures to show the development of my style, how it all started, what I was influenced by, how I used different methods, film qualities, ideas and narrations. I felt superstitious including the ‘Bathhouse’ series (shot for Vogue US, 1975), which has it’s own life now. I had a little dialogue with those pictures [laughs], I thought, ‘There you are! You’re a spoilt brat to get so much publicity.’ But then I felt sorry for it and thought it deserves to be in, god knows it helped my career.

DD: The Fashion Pictures feels very much like your personal scrapbook, laid out with postcards and musings. Why was it important to frame the photographs in this context?
Deborah Turbeville:
One of the problems I have with photography in general and my work is that I have an extremely enlarged frame of references, and it’s frustrating sometimes that people don’t understand a photograph. So I wanted to show, if I could, some things that I thought maybe people didn’t understand. I like people to get involved and see that there’s so many influences, between filmmakers, painters, writers, poets, and all the things I’ve absorbed. It’s a big part of what’s important for me.

For instance, ‘Woman in Furs’ (shot for Vogue Italia, 1984) was very inspired by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. I did it in the 80s when his work was very strong in the film world and the women he used, often prostitutes, were waiting, feeling uneasy, looking frustrated, abandoned or disorientated; I loved the way he used them. His colours were also a certain way that I like.

DD: How do you conduct the relationship with your models? They always seem to be in their own world.
Deborah Turbeville:
Yes, the models I worked with in those pictures have been great for understanding that quality, whether they study my work or do it by intuition. I like them to collapse a bit, as if they’re hiding but they’re there. You get it a feeling from them but in a way that’s almost voyeuristic. There’s a quiet, sometimes silent dialogue between us. I did a book in Russia (Studio St. Petersburg) and a woman I worked with said to me, ‘My god, I feel sometimes you’re taking their soul,’ - because they concentrate so hard trying to pull this thing out of them! I’d stare them down and I didn’t use a lot of obvious light. I mainly use artists, actors or ballerinas, and they are people who would understand that.

DD: Does fashion photography still mean the same thing to you as it did in the 70s and 80s, when you channeled your images through more magazines and became known for series like ‘Bathhouse’?
Deborah Turbeville:
If somebody came to me tomorrow with a commission, sure, I’d be just as excited. Once in awhile, I do a fashion portfolio but now I do a lot more society people for Franca Sozzani. They are much more fun because they are usually interesting characters.

I was looking at a magazine the other day and it’s so creative, the way clothes have evolved; it’s probably much more interesting now and you could just concentrate on that. But you know I can’t do that. I know that my work wouldn’t look right in a lot of important magazines – it just isn’t the right tone, it makes my work look off or it makes the other work look less carefully done or whatever it is that I don’t do.

DD: You began your career in fashion before moving into photography. How has this influenced your perspective?
Deborah Turbeville:
I started really young as the sample model for probably the most influential American fashion designer, Claire McCardell. I was having amazing, inventive clothes fitted on me, which are still influencing people unaware of her influence. I became her assistant and watched her eye as she selected fabrics and gathered the things she needed, as she put them together for the shows and photography. Three years of intense exposure to this women and it lasted the rest of my life.

When I look at fashion, I always look at it from her point of view. So there is an underlying influence of fashion. In the pictures I like, the clothes make the characters look perfect for what they’re doing, giving an atmosphere it would otherwise not have. It’s not all about my picture, my vision, my atmosphere - the clothes are there and describing the story, otherwise he or she wouldn’t be wearing that.

DD: In retrospect, what do you feel you were saying about contemporary culture?
Deborah Turbeville:
I’ve always had at the back of my mind some longing for a world culture that doesn’t exist anymore. Technology has brought in benefits but it’s reduced the attention span people have and their awareness of certain things. I grew up in fashion photography when it was the time to take it all out there and put it in a photograph.

I was lucky because it wasn’t just about a fashion image; it was a commentary on life. The revolt in the 60s, the demonstrations in the United States, Vietnam and the aftermath of all of that. Photographers like Guy Bourdin, Helmut Newton – they were making their own protests. It’s too long a story; we’d have to be spending the whole afternoon together!

© DEBORAH TURBEVILLE: THE FASHION PICTURES, by Deborah Turbeville, Rizzoli New York, 2011 out now.