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Remembering Deborah Turbeville Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

28 October 2013

Surrounded by friends, listening to Rachmaninoff on her iPad, photographer Deborah Turbeville passed away last week in a Manhattan hospital at the age of 81.

"I don't really think of myself as a fashion photographer," she recently explained in an interview. "I'm kind of in denial about it."

But her work for Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and Mirabella, among many others, were all the fashion. A revolutionary view of the avante garde set in ruins and photographed obscurely in an era when the beautiful was brightly lit in impeccable settings and sharply captured.

They were totally out of focus. I didn't know what I was doing.

Her work breathes life into the debate between vision and gear as the determinant in a photographer's achievement because both played an important role in her development.

For three years she was a fit model for the designer Claire McCardell but her waist was so long that the clothes she had been measured for didn't fit the runway models. So McCardell fired her. And hired her right back as her assistant.

But she wanted to work at the magazines as a fashion editor so in 1963, she went to work for Bazaar where she worked with Bob Richardson, Richard Avedon and Diane Arbus.

Photography was someone else's idea. "Why don't you take pictures yourself?" someone suggested.

"Well," she admitted, "I'm not technical."

"But they have these cameras now with meters inside them," her friend told her.

That was enough to send her to a camera store where she bought a Pentax "and had the man explain it to me." She took it to her job at a small magazine where she worked as a fashion editor, was sent to Yugoslavia for a shoot and returned only to find the publication had folded.

Avedon was giving a six-month photography workshop with the art director Marvin Israel and she had her Yugoslavia photos, so she enrolled. He took a look and loved them. As she told it:

They weren't amazing at all! They were totally out of focus. I didn't know what I was doing. But he liked the freedom in them and the idea behind it. Then I started taking things really seriously and testing. By the time I went to work at Mademoiselle later that year, I was able to ask them if ever I could do a sitting of my own and take the pictures.

Because she did her own sittings, she was able to make a living without relying on her work as a photographer alone. Which, she believed, would never have happened because her photos were not sharply focused.

It started because of the way I used the camera. I had a very soft-focus lens. And I liked soft focus and everything came out very soft. And I liked high-grade films that were very grainy. A lot of times there were big mistakes, but I would show the art director and he'd say, "Yeah, let's go with it." There would be a strange cropping or one girl in focus and three out or a blur. But I would end up liking the mistakes and incorporating them into my work. And I became known for it.

It became her style.

It was a style that eventually was honored with the Fashion Group Lifetime Award for Fashion Photography in 1989 and the Alfred Eisenstadt Award for Magazine Photography in 1998 for the Fashion Single Image and Photo Essay. She received a Fulbright scholarship in 2002 for a lecture series in Photography at the Baltic School of Photography in St. Petersburg, Russia. And was awarded the ICP Award for Applied Photography in 2005 and was the 2007 Lucie Awards honoree for Achievement in Fashion.

Technique became important but she never forgot what had distinguished her from the other students in that long-ago workshop: her inspiration.

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