Deborah Turbeville (1932-2013) was a trailblazing American artist and photographer, credited with revolutionizing fashion imagery in the 1970s from its roots in the staid commercial to avant-garde art.
In the world of fashion photography, there is before Turbeville, and there is after Turbeville. In 1975, Deborah Turbeville produced an image that would become one of the most notorious and important fashion photographs of the last 50 years, bursting onto the scene and making a name for herself overnight. The photograph in question, Bath House (1975), was part of a swimsuit shoot for VOGUE, and showed five listless women leaning against the walls of a shower room in a condemned New York bathhouse. The photograph was included in an exhibition at Hofstra University later that year, and a reviewer in The New York Times proclaimed it to be “one of the most beautifully composed pictures in the show,” and noted that it “leaves one wondering if we have not moved beyond the boundaries of fashion photography.” By all accounts, Turbeville is credited for almost single-handedly transforming fashion photography into avant-garde art.
Deborah Lou Turbeville was born in 1932 and grew up in New England, in Boston and on the rock coast of Maine, where she developed a fascination with environments. She moved to New York as a young woman and was recruited by famed fashion designer Claire McCardell, spending three years working in her studio and observing firsthand McCardell’s innovations in color, texture, and design. Through McCardell, Turbeville met Diana Vreeland, the famed editor of Harper’s Bazaar and later VOGUE, and the eventual director of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Vreeland took an early interest in Turbeville and hired her as an editor for Harper’s Bazaar, where she worked with photographers like Richard Avedon, Bob Richardson, and Diane Arbus. At the same time, Turbeville purchased a Pentax camera with a Zeiss lens and began to take her own pictures.
Turbeville’s first professional photographic assignment came when she convinced the former Yugoslavian government to sponsor a trip through the country for a photo shoot to be featured in a magazine in which she acted as both art director and photographer. Later, when Turbeville showed this work to Avedon, he proclaimed her his protégé, announcing to a skeptical audience that she was “what was happening in photography.” Over the years, Turbeville’s soft-focused and pointillistic works appeared regularly in American, Italian, and Russian editions of VOGUE, Harper’s, VOGUE Casa, W, VOGUE Bambino, VOGUE Sposa, Zoom, Condé Nast Traveler, The New York Times, The London Sunday Times, and Art in America.
Turbeville also photographed special portfolios and advertising campaigns for the designers Emanuel Ungaro, Romeo Gigli, and Valentino (as recently as 2011). In 1981, she was commissioned to shoot the first ever Comme des Garçons collection presented in Paris by revolutionary designer Rei Kawakubo.
An acclaimed photo-artist, Turbeville’s elusive and evocative style goes beyond the world of fashion. She published several renowned books of her photographs, including Studio St. Petersburg (documenting her work in Russia), The Voyage of the Virgin Maria Candelaria (documenting her travels in Guatemala and Mexico), Newport Remembered (featuring her photographs of Rhode Island 19th century seaside mansions), and Unseen Versailles (for which she received the American Book Award in 1982).
For the past three decades, Turbeville opened solo exhibitions around the world at galleries and museums such as the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporaneo in Mexico City, and the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Her work is included in the permanent collections of these institutions, as well as in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, among others.
Before her death in 2013, Turbeville spent most of her time in New York, Paris, and St. Petersburg, and at her home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.