Deborah Turbeville is an original artist. Her unique personal vision colors her work and whether portrait, landscape, interiors or fashion, her signature is immediately apparent. Her latest book of photographs, Past Imperfect, may be puzzling to those who like their answers on a plate. The pictures breach the fine line between a commercial fashion shoot and a pictorial work of art, for one thing. In the scenarios depicted the female models are cast as players whose role is ambiguous. As well, the photographer has reproduced her original archive in which many of the prints were torn, scratched and superimposed with sticky tape. She and her publisher, Steidl, spent four and a half years on the book, which is an edited compilation of work done between 1974 and 1997.
Born in 1938 to a comfortably off Bostonian family, Turbeville found her way into photography through magazine journalism. Following a stint at the age of 20 as a model for Claire McCardell, the innovative New York ready-to-wear designer, she went on to work as an editor on American Harper’s Bazaar in the 1960s.
At the magazine, she recalled, she was given a section that dealt with personalities and children. ‘I used rather eccentric-looking people with very special photographers and the section became talked about.’ But after three years, the editor-in-chief, Nancy White, called it a day, telling her that she had ‘taken things too far’. The end was ‘very explosive,’ Turbeville relates. Shortly after this episode Turbeville showed her own amateur photographs to Richard Avedon, with whom she had worked on the magazine. As a result he allowed her to attend some advanced seminars he was teaching with the artist and art director Marvin Israel. This was to be her only formal education in taking pictures. Avedon predicted in the class that she would, one day, succeed.