We have never shared an article that appeared in our print edition, but today is a specially dark day. The photographer Deborah Turbeville has passed away after succumbing to lung cancer. I initially approached Turbeville for a profile for our second volume two years ago. After, she became a dear friend. It is sad to see anyone go before their time, but especially her. Rest in peace, Deborah, wherever you may be.
The article below is in its first draft, with all the imperfections, errors, and misspellings. Somehow it feels more human, like Deborah’s photography. The article may be reproduced in part with a link to this post.
All photography of Deborah’s archive and workspace is by Deborah’s art director, Tuomas Korpijaakko.
Deborah Turbeville – Picture Imperfect
by Eugene Rabkin
One November afternoon I entered a landmark building on the Upper West Side, where the photographer Deborah Turbeville lives. The building is a relic of the past, somewhat reluctantly planted in the present, still grandiose, but its splendor no longer untouchable. The beauty of its baroque façade is undermined by the ugliness of the ground floor storefronts. One is an apparel-maker slinging fleece. Another one is a bank. Across from the building is a newly erected ugly glass box, the lit-up, oversized red sign of its first floor supermarket can be seen from a mile away. Turbeville’s building is uncomfortable in the here and now.
So is Turbeville, who has made an illustrious career out of making images of forgotten grandeur that sadly looks at the vulgarity of the age it was never meant to witness. The subjects of her work, which has appeared in American, Italian, and Russian Vogue and nearly ten books, during a roughly forty-year period, are inevitably spectral. It’s as if they are reluctant to exist, not quite belonging to the world they are forced to inhabit. “I have a terrible time with the present,” said Turbeville. “I have times where I don’t want to go out in the street and confront it all. Particularly lately, because it’s become so much about people’s visible private lives exploding onto the street with their cell phones and their connections. You constantly overhear private conversations going around; this constant barrage of voices talking about their private lives, from which kind of yogurt they want to bring for dinner to a member of the family being deathly ill and going to the hospital. I suppose this unedited material could be used as background for some film, but I just hate it. And visually I have a problem with it. It’s visual noise, confusion. The world that I try to create in my pictures is not the world that’s outside.”
Turbeville’s photographic universe is indeed otherworldly. Her pictures are soft-focused, slightly washed out, and a little weathered; their colors (when they are in color) are warm and muted. They carry a sense of the passage of time. It is no wonder that she finds a kindred spirit in Marcel Proust, the French author whose famous saga is alternatively translated as Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time. One could easily use either of the titles for any of Turbeville’s photos. Naturally, at one point, our conversation turned to Proust. “The greatest thing that I’ve ever read was in Swann’s Way,” said Turbeville. “There is this most hauntingly beautiful thing he writes about going into the Bois de Bologne, and thinking that Madame de Guermantes will never walk here again. I mean I could cry right now thinking about, that terrible feeling that something will never happen again, that you have it in your memory but are not being able to even come close to it. It’s a tragedy. It puts value on your memory, but it doesn’t bring you any closer to what happened. And for someone who had this incredible ability to evoke the past, to have that feeling that is so common to many of us, it was enough to see, he wrote, the way people look now to realize that the kind of hat she wore, the way she walked and the mystery about her was something that I should guard as a memory because I will never see it again.”
The passage has stayed with Turbeville and has been one of the guiding lights in her own work. “It was the most beautiful lament that I have ever read in my life,” she said. “It must’ve stunned me because it made me confront something in myself more strongly that I ever head before. One of the most moving forces when I take pictures is trying to put something down that’s going to become a memory and when I want to make it really good, when I am absolutely determined, I evoke that text all the time to charge myself up to make that impression in a picture.”
Naturally, Turbeville’s affinity with literature does not stop with Proust. She is a big admirer of Russian classic literature. Her love affair with the Russian writers began at school after one of her teachers put Dostoyevsky on her summer reading list. When she presented the list to her local librarian in the coastal Maine, where her family had a summerhouse, the librarian immediately pointed to his name. Upon reading “The Gambler,” Turbeville was smitten. “I am such a fan that I get upset that Nabokov hated Dostyoevsky,” she said. “I think he had a love-hate relationship. Maybe he was a little jealous of him. I think a lot of writers have this influence burden and a fear of copying and pushing off of the influence, but the influence is there, so what can you do? You can’t help by being influenced by Dostyevsky. When Dostyevsky is at his best, he has no rival. Brodsky said that when he gets going, the language takes off in its own, hysteria writing. He influenced me more than anybody else.”
The books fed her schoolgirl’s imagination. “My family lived part of every year in Maine on the coast, and it snowed heavily in the winter, so I think I was drawn to these landscapes and this kind of an atmosphere. For an American to read about those kinds of people was fascinating. I could not have been introduced to such characters otherwise. When I first started reading them I was just taking it all in, the descriptions of the people and the places, and it took years of reading to absorb it all.”
From Dostyevsky, Turbeville moved on to Tolstoy, Turgenev, and especially Gogol. “I keep rereading The Dead Souls. Just the character studies alone are incredibly rich. They are hysterically funny!” she said with an excited laugh. During her time in Russia, Turbeville bought a bunch of Russian film adaptations and she watches them over and over again, even those without the subtitles. “The are so expressive that I don’t need the subtitles to understand them,” she said.
Turbeville’s fascination with Russian literature eventually led her to St. Petersburg. First, a good friend urged Turbeville to go, knowing that the city would prove to be a great subject for her photography. But Turbeville did not want to go just for a photo shoot, so she wrote to her editor at Doubleday, Jacky Onassis (yes, that one), with whom she already did a book on the unseen Versailles, proposing to do a photo book on Russia. “Onassis loved Russia, Russian history, and Russian writers,” said Turbeville. “She had been to Russia several times and she had done a book on Russian costume.” Onassis immediately agreed. The next morning after their phone conversation, Turbeville found out from the news that Onassis had been suffering from cancer. Within three months Onassis passed away and the book was scrapped.
Turbeville, however, was determined. She found another publisher who agreed to underwrite the book. Still, Turbeville did not know anyone in Russia. She searched for a contact in vein, until one day a friend’s husband invited her to a vernissage for the restoration of the Alexander Palace. There she met some distant relatives of the Romanov’s, who put her in contact with the right people in St. Petersburg. “I really had no idea that I was going to St.Petersburg,” said Turbeville. “I just wanted to do a book about Russia. But when I got there I realized that it’s the city for me.”
The result of her exploration was a beautiful volume called Studio St. Petersburg, with photographs taken over two years. Subsequently, Turbeville was invited back to St. Petersburg to teach a seminar on photography called “Elements of Style,” for which she eventually got a Fulbright grant. She still goes back to St.Petersburg every winter. When I remarked that I don’t miss Russian winters, she said, “It’s freezing, so you just have to layer a lot. But everything moves slower there, which I love. You wake up later, drink a lot of hot tea to prepare yourself, and then you go outside. I love walking all afternoon in St. Petersburg.”
Besides Russia, Turbeville spends several months each year in Mexico, where she has a summerhouse, and Guatemala. One of her recent books, Casa No Name, explores those countries through Turbeville’s photo lens. I asked Turbeville about what draws her to countries as seemingly disparate as Russia and Mexico. She replied, “They are different places and they aren’t. Craft is important to both countries. They are both countries that are devout about their religion. The iconography is very strong in both countries. Especially in Mexico, of course, where they parade their religious symbols around in the streets. They are both dramatic and soulful people. And in a way they are passive. The Russian people are very passive. I hear my Russian friends always say that the Russian government has perpetrated such cruelties on the Russian people through history and the people just stoically take it. The Mexicans are a bit that way too.”
The obviously strong current of the romantic that permeates Turbeville’s aesthetic is bound up with her childhood memories. She was born in Boston, Massachusetts. She attended a private school in the Boston’s Back Bay, the neighborhood full of narrow cobble stone streets and historic buildings, which provided early aesthetic inspiration. The summers spent in coastal Maine, with its morning fogs and the rough ocean, have only increased Turbeville’s attraction to the melancholic.
In school Turbeville took up ballet, modern dance and theater. She loved the choreography, the costumes and the sets, all echoes of another world, artificially transported to the present. Upon graduating, Turbeville went to New York, seeking a theatric career. Her life took a different turn, however, when the then famous fashion designer Claire McCardell asked Turbeville to join her design studio. She assisted McCardell and served as a fitting model for her clothes. Through McCardell, Turbeville met Diana Vreeland, the famous fashion editor, who eventually asked Turbeville to join her at Harper’s Bazaar. There, she worked with famous photographers, including Diane Arbus and Bob Richardson. But it was meeting Richard Avedon, who became a mentor, that catapulted Turbeville’s photographic career. When Turbeville showed Avedon her soft-focused, warm-colored photos that were diametrically opposed to his own crisp black-and-white images, Avedon proclaimed Turbeville the next big thing.
Because of her numerous contributions to the various Vogues, Turbeville has often been pigeonholed as a fashion photographer, an image she is uncomfortable with. “I used to get very frustrated when people would say, ‘the fashion photographer Deborah Turbeville,’” explained Turbeville. “Why couldn’t they just say, ‘the photographer Deborah Turbeville’? Avedon and Penn are referred to as fashion photographers too, and they’ll never get away from that. Every portrait Avedon takes people will see through the prism of fashion photography. So, I’ve stopped trying to run away from it, because you just can’t.”
I pointed out that fashion photography, along with fashion itself, has washed away some of its stigma of a lower form of activity then fine art by now. Turbeville agreed, “The stigma is more gone now. When I first came up in the seminars with Avedon, I was taught to not let the fashion work hang out if you want to be taken seriously. Avedon was hurt by it. Maybe not too much in the end, because he has had shows at the MoMa, at the Met, and the Guggenheim. But for years he was in denial about his fashion pictures. Penn, too. His portraits are amazing, and his esthetic shines through them, as it does through everything he touches.”
Turbeville’s esthetic shines through as much as anyone else’s. In a way her style is more important than her subject matter. It is the style of her photos that unifies such disparate subject matter as the gaudy Newport, the splendid Versailles, and the disheveled Guatemala. Somehow, Turbeville is able to tease out the soul of these places and call up the ghosts of their past. Oscar Wilde once wrote that in matters of grave importance style is the vital thing. In Turbeville’s work that statement really comes to life. “I think my esthetic is intrinsically bound up with every picture I take,” said Turbeville. “Sometimes I think I’d be a better photographer if I wasn’t tied to my esthetic, but it’s so crucial that I can’t live without it. Whether I am doing a portrait or a landscape or still life or a fashion spread, the esthetic is first. It dictates everything in my picture, even if it’s some weird thing from Kafka that I am trying to bring to life. Or if it’s some street scene that seemingly has no esthetic value, but to me it does.”
Not everyone understands. When the book on St. Petersburg came out, the Russian journalists seemed perplexed that the photos are not a direct reflection of reality. Turbeville replied that they are just not looking at the streets with the same eye. Russian Vogue, all diamonds and furs, also was stumped when Turbeville shot a story in an abandoned, derelict palace. It was so decidedly anti-glamorous that Turbeville had to make up a story of two lovers in World War II in order to persuade the editors to publish it. That was her last project for the magazine.
The storytelling is one of the major things that draws Turbeville to photograph. “I try to lead you some place with the photos,” she said, “to give a glimpse of the story without breaking it down. Instead of showing something that happened, I try to evoke something that could happen.”
Telling a story leaves just enough mystery and room for imagination. “Never try to describe or explain your work,” she once declared. “You shouldn’t go too far with explanations,” she told me when I asked her what she meant. “It’s the old Proust who used to say, ‘Once you’ve said something, you killed it.’ And then she added with a laugh, “Look who’s talking!”
That mystery of storytelling is what immediately drew me to Past Imperfect, the first book of Turbeville’s work I came across. I looked in the women in those photos and they were from another era, if not from another world. Or if they weren’t from another era, they desperately looked for a glimpse of poetry that era provided, willing to do anything to escape the banality of their own time and place. And it wasn’t mere escapism that the photos showed, but an urgent, inexorable insistence on something better, a lover that was never met, a place that was never encountered, a feeling never experienced, or experienced and then lost. Usually, when I look at photography, I see a moment frozen in time. On the contrary, when I look at Turbeville’s photography, I see continuity of time. I want to know what her women did before the photo was taken. I want to know what they did after. In other words, I want to know their story.
“In a way Past Imperfect is the sum of my work, the center of my gravity,” said Turbeville. “I think that the stories I did in it and the way I explained them is pretty much what I meant, that these are like short films or short stories that I made.”
When I asked about the rather perfect title, she explained, “Past Imperfect came from On Literature by Umberto Eco. There he talks about Gerard de Nerval, with whom Proust identified. Sylvie is a very fascinating novel [by Nerval]. It’s full of flashbacks, but you don’t quite know when they end and the narrative continues. Eco wrote that the thing that fascinated Proust about Nerval was the use of the past imperfect tense. That tense doesn’t exist in English, but in French it describes something that happened in the past, but has not been resolved and it keeps going into the past and into the future. I wanted to make the point that it’s not about nostalgia, but that we are involved in the process without a knowable end. When he talked about this, Eco quoted Proust who said this tense is lamentable because instead of leaving you in the past, like the past does, it goes on indeterminably in the present and the future. But he obviously adored it, because he used it a lot himself. So, in the same way, my work isn’t just about the past. That’s why I used it for a title.”
The photos in Past Imperfect are mostly from the 70s, what Turbeville’s considers a golden era of sorts. “In the late 70s, they let me do whatever I wanted in the magazines,” said she. “There was no money around anyway. It was a time of economic collapse, and in Paris where I was living, you could do well with very little money. I had a very nice apartment in St.Germain des Pres and I was always doing stories for small art and fashion magazines. Even Italian Vogue let me use the kind of women I wanted to and the kinds of places I wanted. So, those pictures remain important, because you can’t do that anymore. You still have the art magazines, but the just doesn’t work the same way. And those kinds of girls are not around anymore. You have to find people in the street and they don’t always have the time to do it, and some of the locations are gone, the buildings have been torn down.”
Past Imperfect, with its photos that never look quite ready for printing, also provided an important glimpse into Turbeville’s work methods. “I work best in the work-in-process mode and I think the book pretty much explained my point of view about my work. They show these different people and backgrounds and make a kind of a narrative.”
Entropy is indispensable for Turbeville, who is fascinated with picking up and preserving the discarded fragments of the world. It feels most powerful in her photo shoot of Princess Diana’s discarded wedding dresses that was commissioned by the Sunday Times of London shortly after her wedding. The ghostly, unpolished pictures became a perfect juxtaposition to the glam public spectacle of Lady Diana’s wedding. And in the wake of history, they have found new strong resonance. “At this point of time that’s all is left of Lady Diana. I mean, where is she? There was this myth of Lady Diana that’s been going on for years and now no one even thinks about her. And that’s exactly when pictures become valuable for me, when they hang around for years in the drawer, you take them out again and they have this whole other layer of history. That’s what makes photography interesting.”
The fascination with the past, the lingering of memories. Finally, I had no choice but to ask if Turbeville considers the present vulgar. “I have to say, I do,” she answered. “I think in terms of design and fashion some amazing things go on creatively. But they way it’s approached and they way the people want to be seen is extremely vulgar.” I asked about particulars and we circled back to our discussion about photography and style. “Take someone like August Sander, why are his pictures so amazing?” Turbeville asked. “Because there is an incredibly strong esthetic there. He had his style. Otherwise you could take pictures of those boring people and it wouldn’t mean anything. It’s the way he did it that gives them presence, the atmosphere. It doesn’t matter if you are Eugene Atget or Alexander McQueen, it’s the strong style, the vision that goes through your work.”
And what about the present star photographers? “I have problems with Juergen Teller, because his esthetic is terrible,” Turbeville told me. “Steidl (the famous German publisher) always shows me his work, I don’t know why. I like Mikhailov, he’s a stylist, but don’t show me Juergen Teller.” I asked what she thinks of Terry Richardson, another purveyor of photographic banality, and I got a similar reaction. “He is everything that I abhor. His father [Bob Richardson] was so amazing; he was probably responsible more than anyone else for my becoming a photographer. Terry came to see me when he first came back to New York. I had no idea what kind of pictures he took, this was the mid-90s, and I was amazed to see how he could replace his father, who had great style.”
The polished fantasy of perfection, peddled by pop culture, is a big part of what Turbeville means by vulgarity. “Imperfection is my favorite thing,” she explained. “Someone said to me when I was restoring my house that it’s better to have grace without perfection than perfection without grace. I always want imperfection and malfunction. It bothers me when I have perfection in my photographs. Beauty to me is not perfect, it’s horrible when it’s about perfection.”
At that point of conversation the autumn sun was setting and its soft light was shining through the window of Turbeville’s study. I took another careful look around me, at the curving rooms, the earthy color of the walls, the paint damaged in some parts and never repainted, the gracefully aging furniture. The apartment was quiet, both of us dwelling in our thoughts. And then I realized, I was in a Deborah Turbeville photograph. A few minutes later I was outside of her building. The glass box across the street with the screaming red supermarket sign looked doubly vulgar.