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Deborah Turbeville

Last Shot: Deborah Turbeville

Fashion's anti-Helmut Newton passed away last Thursday. Here she is in her own words

Deborah Turbeville died last Thursday in Manhattan, New York, at the age of 81. Turbeville first gained acclaim in the early 1970s for her dark, moodily avant-garde approach to fashion photography, which stood in stark contrast to contemporaries like Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin. She spoke to Dazed for the July 2013 issue on her anti-sleek aesthetic. 

Turbeville’s photographs may evoke wistful memories of bygone times, but she shudders at the word “nostalgia”. The subdued romance and languid elegance of her images have a timelessness that has made her one of the last half-century’s defining fashion photographers. After arriving in New York from Boston, Turbeville became a fashion editor for the likes of Harper’s Bazaar and Mademoiselle. She began taking pictures in 1966, soon developing a soft-focus style that stood out from the sleek aesthetic of contemporaries like Bourdin and Newton. Turbeville’s intuitively rebellious work, ambiguously positioned between fashion and fine-art photography, has had a lasting influence on both fields. 

I love that style is something you have innately – it can’t be bought

“I used to take lots of Polaroids when I worked. They were just sketches of the later photographs, but I always kept them in a drawer or a box for a long time after. I liked the interesting things that happened to them, how spontaneous they looked with time. I don’t really destroy my images on purpose or try to manipulate them too much – these things just happen on their own.

This one in particular got very scratched and mutilated, but I never put one fingernail to it – that was what was so lovely about it. It was from a sitting for Mademoiselle. The shoot was on an awful day in August, 1975 – hot and humid like only New York in the summer can be. I remember there was this crazy Cuban hairdresser who refused to do anything with the girls’ hair and we were all dying from the heat, but the atmosphere was relaxed. Mademoiselle was always very laidback with its shoots. That’s where I really learnt to be a photographer.

The image doesn’t have a name, but it always reminded me of a book by Truman Capote called Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948). It’s like these two girls are just sitting there, endlessly, never changing. They are both very quiet but there’s a feeling of whispering, of other voices. It later appeared in a catalogue called Maquillage (1975), which was made for a big exhibition I was asked to be part of just as I was beginning to come up. All the big names in the art and fashion worlds were in it: Karl Lagerfeld, Paloma Picasso, Bob Rauschenberg, you name it.

Because I love the unfinished, my first thought was to do a work-in-progress magazine with all my Polaroids. I pinned them all up on two huge boards, and it ended up looking like something you would see in an abandoned art department: all screwy and the complete opposite of what a perfect fashion magazine would be. I have done a lot of fashion photography in my career, but I never thought the clothes were the main thing. In that sense I guess I am the anti-Newton. I love that style is something you have innately – it can’t be bought. When I am working with fashion photography, I try to give the impression that the girls have innate style, that they aren’t really concerned with what they have on. I push the fashion part of it in the background and focus more on the identity of the character.” 

Read an interview with Deborah Turbeville on her final book, Deborah Turbeville: The Fashion Pictures, here