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Fragments of the unseen.

WITH EXTRAORDINARY SENSITIVITY and a unique technique, Deborah Turbeville has reached beyond the realm of immediate reality to capture the imperceivable. Few photographers have had such an original and personal vision. Over the past twenty years she has created hundreds of haunting, breathtaking images for magazines, books, advertising firms, museums and galleries throughout the world. This body of work has left an indelible mark on the development of modern photography.

Born in Boston, Turbeville started her career in the worlds of haute couture, which served as a stimulating training ground and catapulted her to international fame. During these formative years, her sense of style and the aesthetic was shaped largely by Claire McCardell, one of the most seminal figures in American fashion and Turbeville's mentor. As a fashion photographer, she worked with leading designers such as Sonia Rykiel, Ungaro, Romeo Gigli and Karl Lagerfeld. Her portfolios have appeared in Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and Mirabella, where she continues to be a regular contributor. Nevertheless, the world of high fashion was hampering to her restless spirit and rarely afforded true artistic release. If she was not always fully appreciated or understood by some of the more fickle participants of that ephemeral sphere, it is because she was simply too complex.

In 1981 Turbeville gave the public her unique insight into the quintessential French palace with the publication of Unseen Versailles. The results were mesmerizing. Ostensibly, the "unseen" in the title refers to those areas not representative of the extravagant Versailles and seldom visited by tourists. In actuality, it was Turbeville's personal vision that had not yet been seen. She avoided the banal and the obvious and instead pursued the more mysterious, sensual route. This palace, a favorite subject for generations of photographers since France's nineteenth-century Eugene Atget, had never taken on the properties with which she imbued it. Turbeville did something far more intricate than clicking the button on a camera - she evoked the presence of a life long since departed by concretizing bits and pieces of the imagined. Now a collector's item, Unseen Versailles won the 1981 United States National Book Award for best photography.

As a follow-up, Turbeville turned her lens on the Eastern Europe of Franz Kafka, with its intense underlying expressionism. A large part of this work will be seen in her forthcoming book Passport. The extraordinary portraits of individuals as the diverse as former Vogue editor-in-chief, Diana Vreeland, and Brazilian film actress Sonia Braga clearly demonstrate that she deals with human beings in the same manner as she does with buildings, rooms or statutes. She intuitively uncovers the soul and envelopes her subjects in a cloak of mystery and etherealness. Turbeville's people exist in a timeless space which has its own rules. Smiles are noticeably absent from these static yet highly charged images, whose inner dynamism communicates as powerfully as a hidden resounding scream. We are drawn to them because they are a reflection of ourselves - a concrete mirror image - and we are compelled to contemplate them at length. Only then are we granted access into the world they evoke.

Fortunately for the Americans, South and North, Turbeville has begun a heartfelt odyssey through one of the earth's richest and, oftentimes, neglected family of cultures. It began several years ago when she bought a house in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where she instantly fell in love with her surroundings. Turbeville's affection for Latin America has been growing ever since. Her new home, which provides an escape from the hustle of New York, has given her a sense of tranquility and she finds it increasingly painful to separate herself from this adopted culture. Through her contact with the indigenous population and their heritage, she has learned that the "progress" of the twentieth century leaves much to be desired.

In her approach to photography, Turbeville avoids what is often seen in the work of many politically oriented photo-journalists who deal with indigenous people in a didactic, pedantically-tinged manner, harping on what unfortunate, exploited creatures they seem to be. Turbeville has wisely opted for letting aesthetics dominate, giving art the upper hand. The results are not only dazzling but of an extreme power and relevance. Her subjects have been adopted as part of her staple personal imagery and the affection she feels for them is obvious.

Just as the Guatemalan women take the place of Turbeville's Parisian models, the ruins of Antigua are the answer to the spectral ambience of the Versailles she captured so succinctly. As in the past, she has brought forth her world - moody, seductive and at times even disquieting, but ultimately visually stunning. It is romantic in its sense of deep brooding over the loss of time There is a longing for so much of what is no longer with us. Ruins are venerated and there is a fascination with places that glow with the lovely patina and luster of the passage of years. Yet in execution and style, the work is of a definite modernity - bold, vigorous and brutal.

The often grainy character of Turbeville's photography is achieved through a variety of techniques. The soft, painterly tones in her colors, as well as the intermingling of black and white or sepias with subtle tints create an overall ambience that compliments her choice of locales. Avoiding places which are too neat or new, she delves into a more chaotic, disorderly world which has an underlying richness to it. Her obsession with out-of-the-ordinary subjects, which she refers to as "funny" or "funky," contributes to the complexity she so convincingly expresses. Ample use of collage is evinced both in the juxtapositions and arrangements within the frame as well as out, where foreign elements are added later. Abrupt, jarring and occasionally out of focus, these works are firmly placed in the century that molded them.

Turbeville has a way of cropping an image to highlight or bring forth its abstract quality. Photos are torn and rearranged in unconventional ways. Sometimes they are pinned to a cardboard or corrugated surface. Tape or paper clips are left clearly visible, playing an active role in the end result. Assorted particles, hairs and dust are often left on the negative during the development of the film to complete a sense of informality. It is an appreciation of the accidental and the irrergular, of what was not meant to be, that has been with us since the days of dadaism. The mounting of her exhibits, developed in an integrated conceptual fashion, is equally important to the overall collage effect. It is as if Lord Byron were collaborating with Kurt Schwitters. Deborah Turbeville is the last romantic but she is a true modern as well.

Her recent exhibition of the Mexican and Guatemalan pictures at the Galerie Rohwedder in Paris was warmly received by large crowds and the press. In fact, it had to be extended for two additional months. Variations on that show are scheduled for February 1992 at the Stately-Wise Gallery in New York and April 1992 at the G. Ray Hawkins Gallery in Los Angeles.

Turbeville's journey through America is far from over. She has plans for visiting Ecuador and Peru, fertile territory for her singular vision, as well as other countries where time seems frozen. If there has ever been a message in her images, none is more potent than the one conveyed in a photograph taken in Antigua, Guatemal. Behold a sublime, ironic, ultimate revenge! A group of exquisitely attired Mayan women stand atop the ruins of buildings constructed hundreds of years ago by Spanish conquistadors. With this one picture, Turbeville has truly said more than a thousand words.

Federico Suro, a native of the Dominican Republic, is a freelance writer living in Washington D.C. He was Ambassador of the Dominican Republic to UNESCO in Paris and a Representative to the European Economic Community and to the Kingdom of Belgium.
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Title Annotation:photographer Deborah Turbeville
Author:Suro, Federico
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Sep 1, 1991
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