“You’d hate to run into someone you knew…” the photographer and artist Deborah Turbeville has scrawled at the top of one of the photographs that appear in her autobiographical book Casa No Name, taken in and close to her Mexican house of the same name. “It would ruin the spell.” Luckily for us, no matter how hard you scrutinize a Turbeville photograph, its spell remains intact. What is going on in a Turbeville image? Well, sometimes it is something as apparently simple as a woman dancing or children lined up and smiling, and sometimes the subject matter is far more mysterious. A clothed bird? A frowning Madonna? A rickety bed surrounded by mysterious objects? What do such things mean? And even the dancing woman or the children become more and more opaque the more you look at them.
When were they photographed? A year ago or a hundred more? What are they doing, so immersed in their own world, so busy with their own thoughts or activity, so self-possessed and unselfconscious? And how has the photographer got so close – these are deeply intimate images after all – without intruding into her subjects’ space or magic circle at all?
This is what Deborah Turbeville does, and has always done, even when she worked as a fashion photographer taking pictures for high-end commercial magazines such as American and Italian Vogue. She photographs things and people and rooms, yes, but just as important in her work is the stuff you can’t see: her subjects’ thoughts and feelings; the provenance and history of her rooms or objects. More than almost any other photographer of her era, Turbeville produces images that are about ambivalence and mystery, paradox and unease.
Born in New England, Turbeville worked first as a fashion editor in the late 1960s for Harper’s Bazaar and Mademoiselle, where she was one of the first editors to use ‘real’ people in her shoots as well as more unconventional looking models. By the mid-70s, however, she was becoming well established as a photographer, and was important as one of the first in a new wave of women fashion photographers, as well as an image-maker whose pictures demanded debate that wasn’t, for the first time, confined to the fashion industry.
Turbeville’s Bath-house series, published in American Vogue in 1975, along with work by Helmet Newton, shocked America because they seemingly implied some kind of sexual decadence – in a mainstream fashion magazine. But on closer inspection Turbeville’s photographs differ wildly from those by her male peers. Turbeville’s women are not objects of desire, nor do they invite the viewer to look at them. Instead, their eyes are mostly down cast or staring off into some dreamy mid distance. They are preoccupied, who knows with what, but certainly their inner lives and secrets seem to interest Turbeville much more than the clothes they are wearing. Imagine this, in a fashion photograph. Turbeville got away with it.
Since the 1970s Turbeville has become better known as an artist whose medium is photography rather than a fashion photographer, and instead of seeing her work in magazines, you will see it more often in art galleries and books (her 1981 book, Unseen Versailles, is regarded as seminal).
Turbeville also uses words, collage, montage and fragments in her work. Sometimes she scratches or writes directly onto her prints. And just as she is well known in her fashion photography for the brilliant and innovative way she placed models in her settings, so she has used mostly found treasures – birdcages, Madonnas, chairs, textiles, pigments and colours – to create the utterly singular Casa No Name. Where do the boundaries between the real and the fantastical lie in Turbeville’s work and life? Who knows. Is Casa No Name a home? A shrine? A dreamscape? A series of sets ripe for story telling? It is all these things. Welcome to the spell.