I started out wanting to become a photographer. There were not many women doing it when I was a teen, but — to my profound delight — two of the legends from those days are still working and talking to the rest of us through the International Center of Photography, whose midtown Manhattan campus offers classes, workshops, degree programs and a lecture series by famous and less-famous photographers that kicked off this evening.
The first guest was Deborah Turbeville, whose photos really look like no one else’s, tough to do in an image-saturated world. With no photography training, she fell into the world of New York fashion as a model for the legendary sportswear designer Claire McCardell, went on to become an editor at Harper’s Bazaar and began shooting her own work. She created, and cherishes, photos filled with decay, ruin and imperfection — placing exquisite models and couture clothing in enormous old high-ceilinged rooms filled only with natural light or cracked mirrors.
She added lint and dust to her black and white prints, giving them the appearance of photos found in a flea-market tin or someone’s battered turn-of-the-century scrapbook.
The work is not, as it may sound, precious or pretentious or artificial, although it’s very much her creation and vision driving it all. Tonight she regaled the room of about 100 people, (a notably artsy crowd in which almost every single person wore black, gray or brown) with great stories behind some of the work — the Albertini twins and Monsieur Lemoine and the hunchback Jean who all kept trying to oversee her work while she was shooting a book at Versailles for, as she put it coyly “a very famous American woman”, whom I’m guessing was Jackie Onassis, for a while a Manhattan book editor.
“Monkeys were involved, parrots were involved. I’d go out into the street and pick people I thought would look right then dress them up,” she said. The Versailles images include women lying on the floor in huge dresses, a pile of dead autumn leaves a second skirt. “We just invented the whole book as we went along. I went around just snapping away.”
Filled with strong opinions, but funny and self-deprecating, she said she hates it– “I hate, hate, hate it!” — when someone comes to her studio, chooses an image and says: “This is the best one. There is no best one!” She returns often to shoot in Russia and in weathered old Eastern European cities like Cracow and Budapest. “I love construction sites, things that are broken. It’s my vocabulary.”
Few women could so easily, and un-annoyingly, drop names like Mr. Liberman, (Conde Nast’s famed editorial director from 1962 to 1994) or have so avidly pursued an image — that she had to re-shoot — of the exquisite soft black leather pumps worn by the equally legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland. (Her autobiography, D.V., is a great read, beginning with the words, “I loathe nostalgia.”)
Turbeville is still shooting actively, most often for all the iterations of Italian Vogue, she said, mostly because they leave her alone; she told several stories of deeply annoyed clients who’d hired her to showcase their products, only to find them hidden, shadowed or disguised, as she did on a shoot for Calvin Klein shoes.
A show of her work opens next week in Manhattan at the Staley-Wise Gallery. Here’s her new book, Past Imperfect.