If you were flip through the latest issue of Vogue in May 1975, you’d be met with a spread spanning several pages: it featured bikini-clad women posing in derelict public baths in New York. The dilapidated setting offered a stark backdrop to the slender and languid models who deliberately challenge stereotypical femininity. This series, titled The Bathhouse, is what thrust Deborah Turbeville into the spotlight as an avant-garde and visionary fashion photographer.
The Bathhouse series immediately sparked controversy. Some saw it as an allusion to gas chambers, others inferred lesbian connotations. At the time, fashion photography, primarily aimed at a female readership, was dominated by men, with few opportunities for women photographers to work for major publications. Yet, Turbeville found her niche. Despite being a strong proponent of “porno chic,” Alexander Liberman, the director of Vogue, encouraged her to cultivate her unique style.
Her dreamy and enigmatic aesthetic stood in sharp contrast to the glossy sex appeal of 1970s’ fashion photography. Distancing herself from the glamorous, provocative images of her contemporaries, such as Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin, Turbeville injected narrative and mystery into what were essentially commercial photos. The setting and composition took precedence over the model. In her work, there were no sexualized “Wonder Women”: the young women averted their gaze, never confronting the lens.
True to her vision, Turbeville consistently refused to conform to the norms. Even with commissioned photography, she didn’t seek validation or try to fit into the aesthetic of glossy fashion magazines. In a December 1981 interview with Amy Gross for Vogue, she stated: “I’ve never done big commercial jobs and never will. Everything I do is stylized. I do what I want to do, and either it pays or it doesn’t.”
The aesthetics of alteration
Author, curator, and director of Photo Elysée in Lausanne, Nathalie Herschdorfer strives to highlight female artists as part of the museum’s programming and unearth works by women who have been forgotten or neglected.
Deborah Turbeville passed away in 2013, leaving no children. In 2020, as her studio was about to be dismantled, the MUUS Collection acquired the archives and invited Nathalie Herschdorfer to examine them. “Opening the boxes, I was stunned to see these collages. It felt like discovering prints from the 1920s–30s that had been abandoned and found in an attic.” Turbeville’s vast archives of notebooks and photomontages gave rise to an exhibition: Deborah Turbeville: Photocollage.
Without any indication of the date, it is hard to believe these images were made in the 1970s. Turbeville did not hesitate to tear up or trample her photos, giving them a characteristic aged appearance. She favored damaged and scratched prints over glossy and pristine paper—aesthetic choices that permeate her entire body of work, setting her apart from her contemporaries.
Her photos are distinguished by their grainy texture, faded colors, sepia tones, and the suggestive blur—a technique she learned from Richard Avedon. She confessed to Amy Gross: “I don’t want to be completely in the present. There are things I like in the past. The atmosphere—I need an atmosphere like some need food or sex.”
Turbeville approached photography as a form of precarious and fragile memory. This artistic vision took on a concrete form with Unseen Versailles. Commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis in 1980 as part of a report on Versailles, Turbeville’s work captures the mysteries of the palace with its maze of hidden rooms and antechambers. Over the course of one winter, she explored areas off-limits to tourists, revealing the decay of grandeur, showing that even luxury is not immune to the passage of time.
The woman behind the artist
Photocollages spans the entire oeuvre of Deborah Turbeville. With nearly forty years of photographic career from her fashion assignments to her more personal series and experimental photo montages, we gain insight into the private world of the woman behind the artist.
As Nathalie Herschdorfer emphasizes, this exhibition also seeks to “liberate Deborah Turbeville from a box in which she has been categorized.” While her career was predominantly dedicated to fashion photography, it was not limited to it. An unclassifiable photographer, Turbeville belonged to no particular movement and asserted, “I am not a fashion photographer, I am not a photojournalist, I am not a portraitist.”
A prolific artist, she exploited the narrative potential of photography. She demonstrated this in Passport: Concerning the Disappearance of Alix P., a sixty-page novella inspired by her own experiences in the fashion industry. It follows Alix, a designer at the pinnacle of her career, presenting her collection to the Parisian elite. Based on this novella, Turbeville created a series of 130 collages. By blending old photographs and typewritten text, she crafted a narrative reminiscent of film storyboards. Among her most significant influences, she cited Alain Resnais, Ingmar Bergman, and Jean Vigo.
Turbeville’s photocollages are conceived as staged sequences, akin to short films. They read like a fictional story, informed by the artist’s life. She once said to Jonas Cuénin, in 2011 : “A photographer always puts a part of themselves into their photos. The enigma is just there; one should not look for an answer.”
Deborah Turbeville, Photocollage. Photo Elysée, from November 3, 2023, to February 25, 2024.
Nathalie Herschdorfer, Deborah Turbeville: Photocollage, Thames & Hudson, €74, 204 pp.