A Trailblazing Fashion Photographer's Turn to Collage
In the 1970s, Deborah Turbeville eschewed highly-sexualized photographs in favor of haunting portraits.
The Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan says that history can help you make sense of the present. “It may help you like a sign on a road that says ‘dangerous curve ahead’ and makes you drive more carefully,” she noted back in 2016. MacMillan was speaking about media and politics, but her words rang through my mind as I visited the exhibition Deborah Turbeville: Collages, currently on view at Deborah Bell Photographs in New York.
Deborah Turbeville was one of the most revered fashion photographers working during the 1970s and ’80s, and her legacy has shifted the way we view women in fashion imagery. Beginning as fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar, Turbeville’s entry into image making in 1966 was a six-month photography workshop taught by Richard Avedon and the art director Marvin Israel. Her editorial fashion shoots would later be featured in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Nova, and the New York Times Magazine, among others, and she also worked with advertising clients such as Comme des Garçons, Guy Laroche, Valentino, and Calvin Klein.
Within an atmosphere of fashion photography dominated by highly sexualized, saturated images of women taken by men, Turbeville’s images are haunting. Shooting mainly in black and white, she portrayed women as specters; her subjects play the role of distant relatives whose pictures we might hang on our mantle. In the exhibition, these images are collaged, cut, and stuck to mounting paper as she saw fit, which adds to their archival aspect. You are always aware of her hand in the construction and capture.
Turbeville began making collages in the late 1970s while working with Israel on her first book, Wallflower (1978). He encouraged her to play with her images and negatives; as a result she made ensembles—taping, pinning, Xeroxing, and cutting. (Some of the originals made for Wallflower are included in the exhibition.) This process allowed her to crop images with tape around the 35mm frame and layer others up, giving an air of work-in-progress. In a piece titled Chateau Raray (ca. 1984), images of a melancholic interior overlap and tussle for space; two protrude from the black backing mount. Shot in the house where Jean Cocteau made La Belle et La Bête (1946), the piece draws attention to the importance of location to her photographs.
Perhaps the most striking element throughout Turbeville’s work is the women she captures. “I can’t deny that I design the background,” she told the New York Times in 1977. “A woman in my pictures doesn’t just sit there. In what kind of mood would a woman be, wearing whatever? I go into a woman’s private world, where you never go.” In the two collages that include images created for the Charles Jourdan shoe campaign in 1974, the models’ physicality draws you in, each scene playing out as if from a silent movie. The women pose amongst the mannequins in the Woolf Form Dummy Factory wearing Betsey Johnson clothing, the shoes being sold barely visible. One element of Turbeville’s enduring relevance is her sense of humor—she was disdainful about fashion.
In another image for Calvin Klein, in 1976, a woman bends double, her hair tumbles to the floor, and kicked off in front of her are two shoes, visual breadcrumbs amongst the desolate architecture. Turbeville’s women don’t “work”; they sprawl and lounge in faded country mansions, in woods, and in bathhouses. They are fragments of history even at the time they were shot, yet they are distinctly feminine—feminine from a feminine perspective—and so, in turn, there is something relatable about them.
Fashion photography has always been a reactionary space to carve up and redefine identity. And, like MacMillan’s historical road signs, fashion photographs act as useful ephemeral markers. The “dangerous curve ahead”—the exploitative imagery prevalent at the time Turbeville was working —was, until very recently, the industry norm. In the wake of recent social movements such as #MeToo, the time seems ripe to redefine representation.
Deborah Turbeville: Collages is on view at Deborah Bell Photographs, New York, through June 29, 2019.