Deborah Turbeville: Fashion Photographer Analysis

Photo by MBARDO on

American photographer, Deborah Turbeville, (July 6, 1932-October 23, 2013) was originally from Stonham, Massachusetts. Later, when the fashion bug hit her, she relocated to New York. Intense, shy, and introspective her talent was subtly wrapped up in a childhood rife with isolation and poignancy.

Educated at Brimmer and May School in the Bay of Boston her love for snow-covered landscapes, illuminated windows, fog, wind, and turbulent seas stayed with her, from this time, and often showed up in her later images. From her start in the fashion industry, she was surrounded by talented people including fashion designer Clare McCardell, whom she worked with as an assistant and fit model. From there she worked for Mademoiselle in the editorial department, then as a fashion editor for Harper’s Bazaar.

Frustrated by her inability to find a photographer who could capture her vision and execute it, she become a photographer herself during the 1960s. After taking a workshop conducted by Richard Avedon and “art director” Marvin Israel, they became her mentors. “If it hadn’t been for the two of them I wouldn’t have taken my photography seriously,” she told Time Magazine. Later she would work with photographer Bill Richardson.

If her childhood helped mold the dramatic side of her style her “outside maverick” personality was further honed by the 1970s and its fascinating political backdrop. “A new mood of cynicism in the 1970s would provide a more challenging environment for fashion and fashion publishing,” wrote Kate Nelson Best in the article The Rise of Individualism: The 1960s and 1970s.

Historically linked to photographers Helmut Newton and Guy Bordin, because of her controversial, anti-fashion stance, she was actually the opposite. Where they were both obsessed with portraying models in dangerously glamorous situations reminiscent of their past, she chose to “reflect the darker side of contemporary womanhood and eschew utopia for dystopia.”

A regular contributor to American and Italian Vogue magazines, she and Newton had the unfortunate opportunity of losing Vogue subscribers in the Bible Belt, when editor Grace Mirabella published their photos as part of her 1975 editorial. At times haunting, mysterious, ghostly, and flawed, Turbeville’s photographic style is inwardly motivated and psychologically deep. This heartfelt realism matched Mirabella’s wish for Vogue to be seen as a magazine with “fashion for real life” instead of the fantasy wonderland Diana Vreeland created during her turn as editor.

Mannequins, a frequent presence in her photos, add an alienated touch and poetic harmony. When I look at her photos what really resonates with me is the way the surface smoothness of her images contrast harshly with their grimy substances. Similar to distressed fabric they appear both old and new as they relate a story that could be either disturbing or eccentric. A beautiful girl in an exquisite garment isn’t her ultimate goal, the inner workings of the woman herself is.

In the 1980s she worked with another genius designer, Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garcons. Known for being equally “unsettling and quixotic” they clicked creatively. Besides Kawakubo, she also worked with Valentino, Jean Muir, and Rochas. Today her technique is widely copied and is no longer as controversial as it once was during her heyday. Distinctively unique, the one thing that will always be universally hers is a her sharp eye and originality.

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