Unconventional Depictions of Fashion and Beauty Define Deborah Turbeville’s Archive

In “Photocollage,” avant-garde images and arresting montages come together to showcase Turbeville’s distinct style of storytelling.

Though her name remains relatively under the radar compared to peers like Helmut Newton and Guy Burdin, Deborah Turbeville and her body of work left a permanent impression on the photography world. Since the beginning of her career in the 1970s, her fog-like, sometimes blurry and monochromatic images pushed the boundaries of fashion photography. She lensed models of unconventional beauty posing in desolate, rundown places. Yet, her photos appeared in American Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, not to mention she worked with clients like Comme des Garçons.

A busy collage featuring many black and white images taped to a board
Deborah Turbeville, Giselle, Cafe Tacuba, Mexico City, Mexico, January 1992, courtesy of MUUS
Collection. © Deborah Turbeville/MUUS Collection

Ten years after her death, a selection of Turbeville’s oeuvre is on display in Lausanne, Switzerland in “Photocollage” at Photo Elysée. This new show includes not only her magazine editorials but also her experimental photo montages.

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Turbeville once told The New Yorker in 2011, “I’m not really a fashion photographer. Fashion takes itself more seriously than I do.”

That statement has some truth to it and to unpack it, Nathalie Herschdorfer, curator of “Photocollage” and Director of Photo Elysée, emphasized how much Turbeville’s subversive iconography went against the grain of fantasy sold in fashion magazines—especially since publications run on revenue as well as the strength and beauty of the photography on its pages.

A photo, torn in half of a woman's face that has been mounted on paper
Deborah Turbeville, Untitled, Hoboken, New Jersey, 1975, courtesy of MUUS Collection. © Deborah Turbeville/MUUS Collection

Herschdorfer tells Observer, “If magazines bring in photographers that are difficult for readers or brands, they will be in trouble. In that sense, it’s interesting to see editors-in-chief like Franca Sozzani who worked for many years with Deborah Turbeville knowing she would not provide what the brands wanted. When you promote bathing suits for summer, you want beautiful women on the beach, bright sun and blue sky to make people dream. Fashion photography is about making people want to buy this life shown in photographs. If you look at Turbeville, I don’t think people would want to live in her world.”

A collage of photographs featuring a smirking woman
Deborah Turbeville, Luisa, Posos, January 1991, courtesy of MUUS Collection. © Deborah Turbeville/MUUS Collection

Turbeville tended towards the derelict in what she captured. In one of her most famous images for American Vogue in 1975—known as The Bathhouse Series—five women in bathing suits and robes pose in a rundown, communal shower that gives off an undeniably unglamorous, lethargic energy, “…evoking the grisly aura of a concentration camp or the frightening vacuousness of a drugged stupor,” wrote Nancy Hall-Duncan in The Berg Companion to Fashion.

Some of this fashion photography became the basis for her handmade collages. The MUUS Collection granted Herschdorfer complete access to Turbeville’s archive: contact sheets, Polaroids, notebooks and negatives that provided an opportunity to dig deep into Turbeville as an artist for “Photocollage.”

“My understanding was these collages were a kind of private garden for her,” recalls Herschdorfer. These mixed-media masterpieces included photographic prints and contact sheets literally sliced up, taped together and layered in various formations along with her handwritten words.

A collage of three photographs focused on women outdoors in furs and dresses
Deborah Turbeville, Venice, July 6, 1978 (Fun sitting with Natalie and Victoria), Venice, Italy,
1978, courtesy of MUUS Collection. © Deborah Turbeville/MUUS Collection

Herschdorfer believes there was a method to Turbeville’s creative madness. Though Turbeville’s collages cannot be boxed into just any existing art genre, the closest comparison could be something along the lines of cinematic representation.

“I would compare her work to a filmmaker. She goes back to existing images. Sometimes she would shoot for a brand or a magazine but at the same time, she would produce other images with the same models,” Herschdorfer explains. These were images that were never published, and the photographer knew they wouldn’t be published. She shot them for her private use. “The way she framed was the way a filmmaker would work on a montage. In that sense, she used photography like a theater stage: her models are like theater-film characters.”

A black and white photo of a Romanesque statue
Deborah Turbeville, Untitled, from the series Unseen Versailles, Versailles, France, 1980,
courtesy of MUUS Collection. © Deborah Turbeville/MUUS Collection

After all, Turbeville was a model before she became a photographer. She understood the role of an actor, but also the one of a storyteller with a heightened visual sense. She was born in Boston in 1932, but her photography career came to life at the age of 42 in New York City when her images appeared in Vogue in 1975. One of the few women working in fashion photography at the start of her career, she eschewed “selling“ fashion in photos where the lens and lights focused on clothing and accessories. Instead, Turbeville anchored her images around a narrative evoking dramatic atmosphere and feeling—shooting with film, a much slower process in comparison with today’s faster-paced technology. And despite the decades in between, Turbeville’s one-of-a-kind collages and fashion photography have endured even now.

Herschfelder contextualizes Turbeville’s lasting appeal: “We live in a time where everything is on our screens with beautiful images that we look at quickly on our devices. When I showed younger generations the work of Turbeville, they loved it. They were fascinated by it because it’s a physical object, it’s unique and it cannot be reproduced. When she made the collages, it was not at all fashionable. Today, I think it’s the right time to show her work.”

Photocollage” is on view at Photo Elysée, Lausanne, Switzerland until February 25, 2024.

Unconventional Depictions of Fashion and Beauty Define Deborah Turbeville’s Archive