Last year, the Paris label Jacquemus, whose nonchalant PVC crop tops and skirts had us lusting for idling girl gangs, released a video titled “La Piscine.” With five women loitering around a pool, the short’s meandering pace and tiled backdrop bring to mind Deborah Turbeville’s contentious 1975 bathhouse photos for Vogue, which transformed fashion nearly four decades ago. More recently, the inaugural issue of the much-hyped literotica magazine Adult, which launched shortly after Turbeville succumbed to lung cancer last October at the age of 81, included a timely tribute: an editorial featuring grainy nudes flopped in bathtubs and slumped in a dim hotel room.
Ever hesitant to label herself a fashion photographer, the former model and early-’60s magazine stylist turned pioneering image-maker is the original etherealist. The New York Times wrote in her obituary that Turbeville “single-handedly turned fashion photography from a clean, well-lighted thing into something dark, brooding and suffused with sensual strangeness.” scrolling through her work, which includes campaigns for Comme des Garçons, Sonia Rykiel and Valentino, has a similar effect to discovering a box of photos at a flea market, ancestors that beguile all the more for being anonymous.
Throughout her career, Turbeville maintained her intuitive bent for the apparitional woman: she whose preoccupation is elsewhere, whose clothes are a mere afterthought and who is sheathed instead in wraithy Miss Havisham decay. “I have an instinct for finding the odd location, the dismissed face, the eerie atmosphere, the oppressed mood,” she was quoted as saying. She sought the eroticism of a vacant ballroom; the wan, arid rubble of an old mining town in Mexico; the lingering light that breaches a forest at dusk.
While Turbeville’s male contemporaries Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin turned celebrity portraits and pulpy rouge-lipped voyeurism into daily fashion fare, the self-described “tall, gangly girl” with a penchant for Krzysztof Kieślowski and Roman Polanski preferred the smudged narrative of a film still. Although she received guidance from Diane Arbus and Richard Avedon, “she was more a director than a photographer because her pictures have the depth of a character and the personality of the people,” her long-time agent, Marek Milewicz, said over the phone. Turbeville was the first photographer to street-cast, inviting, for instance, dancers from a Russian ballet school to model when she was shooting on location for W Magazine. Including multiple women in a single frame was also downright novel in the ’70s and ’80s. (Her book, Unseen Versailles, which former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis commissioned, won the American Book Award in 1981.)
You can’t unsee a Turbeville. This may explain why the pages of Italian Vogue and Acne Paper, Francesca woodman’s oeuvre, Petra Collins’ Rookie road trips and fashion’s current emphasis away from the runway and toward short films all lean on Turbeville’s troupe of languid, ambling, delicate girls.