On view until February 25th, Deborah Turbeville: Photocollage unveils a lesser-known yet essential facet of this American photographer who is mostly acknowledged for her contribution to fashion photography from the 1970s to the 2010s.
Curated by Nathalie Herschdorfer, director of Photo Élysée, the exhibition may not have been the same without a comment by Turbeville herself. While working on the exhibition Coming into Fashion: A Century of Photography at Condé Nast ten years ago, Herschdorfer contacted Turbeville to seek permission to include images from her breakthrough series Bath House (1975). Turbeville (1932-2013) responded, “I really hope I won’t be remembered for this work only.” In 2020, when the MUUS Collection, which had just acquired Turbeville’s estate, asked Herschdorfer to curate a show from the photographer’s archives, that comment was still lingering in her mind. She delved into Turbeville’s work and discovered a 40-years-long practice of collage and experimentation, which are at the heart of this retrospective.
A melancholic undercurrent runs through Turbeville’s work. She goes beyond the image’s romantic façade by manipulating, tearing, and scratching her negatives and prints and then pinning, taping, or gluing them onto craft paper, along with her own handwriting and printed text. Shining a light on this unique visual language, the exhibition shows how it helped redefine fashion photography but also went far beyond the genre. Along elegant green walls built for this exhibition, we follow Turbeville’s trajectory, from her beginnings with art director Alexander Liberman, who commissioned the controversial Bath House photoshoot (some readers of Vogue, where it appeared, complained that the women looked like drug addicts), to her travels across Europe, Russia, and Latin America.
Her enigmatic compositions and her approach to the photographic material, marked by soft focus and scratches on the negatives, evoke the ethereal imagery of the late 19th century more than the raw snapshots of her contemporaries Guy Bourdin, Helmut Newton, or Irving Penn. This discrepancy with her peers allowed her to find her place within fashion photography, whose visual codes she reshaped through her poetic compositions and by showing a vision of femininity that radically contrasted with the supermodels of the 1980s. But the romantic patina of Turbeville’s images can be misleading. She observed that she was trying to make the soft focus and the texture work in a “perverse, strange, eerie way.”
While she didn’t align herself with any particular artistic group or movement, Turbeville was influenced by the cinema and by such directors as Alain Resnais, Jean Vigo, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, and Michelangelo Antonioni. This kinship is evident in her narrative treatment of photography, whether through the collages that enable her to tell stories, or the way she delved into her own archives to craft fictional narratives, as in Passport: Concerning the Disappearance of Alix P, the centerpoint of the exhibition. This 60-page satire of the fashion industry seems to encapsulate Turbeville’s entire vision, a world of pictorial poetry and haunting presences, where beauty and strangeness go hand in hand.