Deborah Turbeville never intended to be a fashion photographer. She was born in Massachusetts in 1932, and her career came about by a strange, slow osmosis. First, she was a model for the American designer Claire McCardell; next, an editor at Harper’s Bazaar; then, a student of Richard Avedon’s; and finally, a freelance photographer in her own right. Turbeville dreamed of working like Eugène Atget, who spent his time photographing street corners and stairs, leaving behind an archive of exquisitely patinated snaps of Paris. Instead, fashion became her métier. She accepted the work she was assigned, but suffused her images with a decidedly unfashionable vision—spectral, melancholic, and sometimes eerie.
Despite consistently glowing reviews throughout her career as a photographer, and articles heralding her as a change-maker in fashion (a 1977 article in The New York Times was titled “The Deborah Turbeville Look”), her work, though revered, has slowly slipped away in time. Now, one decade after Turbeville’s death, at 81, in 2013, a new exhibition has just opened at Lausanne’s Photo Elysée. Serving as her first retrospective, “Deborah Turbeville: Photocollage” focuses on a previously unseen body of work—collages. Torn and taped, overlapping and otherworldly, these images show Turbeville rejecting photography’s ideal of silver-flecked purity. Leaving the collages deliberately distressed, she’s embracing what she referred to as the “edge.”
Although fragments of Turbeville’s fashion imagery are present in these collages, Nathalie Herschdorfer, the Elysée’s director and the curator of the show, wanted to position her as an artist beyond the narrow confines of fashion photography. “My work aimed to highlight the artist who experiments, who explores the image,” she explains.
“It’s because of will,” Turbeville said of her experiments in a 1981 article in Vogue. “It takes will, for anyone who’s exploratory, inventive, to oppose the conventions, the norms.... I wanted [the pictures] to be timeless, to throw them into a time warp.”
The photographs and collages on view possess the same haunting yet disturbing Surrealism one finds in the New Wave film Last Year at Marienbad, by Alain Resnais. Turbeville loved his work. In her collages, there are crumbling statues of gods, and women walking through barren gardens. A sense of unease underlies the surface beauty. “She imbues her photographs with a romantic, sensual, and psychological atmosphere,” says Herschdorfer. “Her photography is based on multiplicity and fragmentation, the strange and the timeless.”
Though she was frequently compared to contemporaries such as Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton, their portrayals of femininity and sexuality were greatly different from hers. One of Turbeville’s most infamous photographs features five women slouching in an abandoned bathhouse, prompting interpretations that ranged from homosexuality to the more sinister evocation of Auschwitz. “If we look closely at Turbeville’s work, we see that her models are graceful women with a Sapphic sensuality immersed in a kind of boredom,” says Herschdorfer, “the opposite of the glamorous images of sex symbols immortalized by the star photographers of the time.”
The so-called Deborah Turbeville look lived only as long as its creator, but, then again, it never really was a style that could be successfully copied. A visit to this retrospective ushers us into the time warp she so greatly desired.
“Deborah Turbeville: Photocollage” is on at Photo Elysée, in Lausanne, Switzerland, through February 25, 2024
Check out AIR MAIL’s Arts Intel Report, our newly revamped research tool for what to do, see, and watch around the world
Christina Cacouris is a Paris-based writer and curator