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Deborah Turbeville’s legacy

By Margaret Failoni, photo by Stephan Lupino

Deborah Turbeville’s “Unseen Versailles” photo essay was to be the jumping start from fashion photography to art photography, although her work from the very beginning was totally different from the standard fashion photography of the time. It was at this time I first became acquainted with the artist and her work. I had the exciting pleasure of mounting her “Unseen Versailles” exhibition in my gallery in Rome, Italy, in 1982.

“El Viaje de la Virgen de la Candelaria”
By the late photographer Deborah Turbeville
Until Oct 5
Main sala
Centro Cultural El Nigromante “Bellas Artes”

Turbeville loved fashion. She left her native New England to join the hustle and bustle of the fashion world by moving to New York City and becoming a fashion model. Her tall, lanky countenance was perfect for the all-American designs of Claire Cardell, whose work was often on the covers of the then popular Seventeen magazine. She quickly graduated to becoming a fashion editor for Harper’s Bazaar. It was during this period that she experimented with photography, having discovered that by manipulating the camera’s optics, she could create slightly unfocused, and therefore, dreamlike images. No one had done it before and this was to become her trademark. Whereas all the great photographers of the time were using perfectly proportioned poses with artistic lighting to create crisp images, Turbeville instead positioned her models in purposely created decadent ambiances, off-focus shots and augmented further the effect desired in the printing process. With such an eccentric and unique pictorial talent, it was obvious that she could not and would not limit herself to fashion, but instead, spread her wings to the world of photography as art. She started working for Vogue and thanks to the eye of Alexander Liberman, the editorial director of Conde Nast magazines and himself a prestigious artist, what had been hitherto considered strange to other people became much appreciated. Her incredible talent for creating scenarios, posing beautifully attired women in less than glamorous settings, or using less than glamorous models in sportswear, languidly and expressionlessly leaning against the walls of abandoned bath houses, was something never before seen in fashion photography. At the time, it caused quite a stir. It was not long before Turbeville was ready to move on to more adventurous assignments.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was an editor at Doubleday and commissioned Turbeville to create the great photo essay “Unseen Versailles.” “I wanted her to conjure up what went on there,” Onassis later tells People magazine, “to evoke the feeling that there were ghosts and memories.” Turbeville moved to France and after two years of research she relates, “I destroy the image after I’ve made it, obliterate it a little so you never have it completely there.”

Alexander Liberman called “Unseen Versailles” “a pioneering breakthrough in photography.” And perhaps, it is this breaking with convention that is her legacy.

The Ileana Sonnerbend Gallery in New York soon signed up Turbeville and the “Unseen Versailles” photo exhibition became the talk of the town. Not only had no one ever seen before photographs, off focus, undeveloped, sometimes ripped, not presented in frames but instead pinned onto brown wrapping paper, but also presented as unique pieces perhaps with the same image printed in sepia instead of black and white, or printed onto another image creating an even stronger ghostlike effect. The Doubleday book of the subject sold out and went into a double printing. The exhibition opened in 1982 in Rome, Italy, and toured Europe with great success. Many artists were among the first collectors. Museums soon followed. Although she continued to do fashion photography with her own unusual take on the work, Turbeville produced more and more series of romantic visions of the world around her with ‘real’ people as her subjects. A photo shoot in Guatemala and Mexico brought her to San Miguel de Allende where she established a beautiful colonial home, sharing her time between San Miguel and her base in New York City. Once again our paths would meet when I moved to San Miguel. A beautifully curated exhibition of these works, “El Viaje de la Virgen de la Candelaria,’” opened in Mexico City’s Televisa Museum, the Centro de Arte Contemporaneo. That exhibition toured several Latin American capitals as well as showing in the Bellas Artes spaces of San Miguel, which I was privileged to curate. Shortly afterwards, she gave up her apartment in Paris and established another base in Russia, her new love. Exhibitions and book publications were born from this adventure as well as beautiful books on America’s castles, the mansions of the industrial barons that formed the 19th and 20th century American wealth.

The multiple awards received by Turbeville are a testament to how highly she is regarded in the world of photography both in fashion and in art. She has been awarded a Fulbright to teach and in 2009 published Past Imperfect, a survey of her narrative work from 1974 to 1998. In October of 2011 another publication, a retrospective of her best fashion and commercial work Deborah Turbeville: The Fashion Pictures hit the bookstores. Her death in the autumn of 2013 leaves a void in the world of fashion and art photography. There is no doubt that she was a trailblazer. In honor of our late sanmiguelense,The El Nigromante Bellas Artes Center is exhibiting once again the Guatemala/Mexico photo exhibition, “El Viaje de la Virgen de la Candelaria,” which will run through October 5. In all probability, this is the last time we will see an exhibition of Turbeville’s work in Mexico. The New York based Deborah Turbeville Foundation is in charge of arranging exhibitions, which will travel around the world. The San Miguel de Allende Gallery, Casa Diana, Deborah’s gallery from the beginning of her Mexican sojourn, has been assigned by the foundation to take care of eventual sales stemming from this exhibition, after which the Turbeville works of art will leave our safe haven for further lands afar.

It would be a pity to miss this last opportunity to see, admire and perhaps own a work of this unique and exciting artist.


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