New York

Deborah Turbeville


There has always been a creepy, Frenchified romanticism in Deborah Turbeville’s photographs. It’s the kind of esthetic that leads to Delphine Seyrig slinking around in Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad or vaguely contemplating suicide in Marguerite Duras’ India Song. Turbeville’s models look as if they’ve been stuffed with Quaaludes and artfully strewn around the set like so many satin throw pillows. And, lest we forget what century we’re living in, every shot is permeated with a “leprosy of the soul” angst.

Thumbing idly through Vogue and hitting a layout by Turbeville can be amusing—a model nodding out in an abandoned mannequin factory, wearing haute couture, combines nicely with the commercial palpitations of Seventh Avenue. Seeing the work in a gallery is different; somehow the syrupy sangfroid can begin to look awfully anecdotal. The orientation toward fashion product begins to strain the sculptural tension out of the drapery in these pieces and to replace it with the exigencies of commercial presentation. Turbeville has been fighting that commercial interpretation by scarring the surface of her prints so that they emerge with a battered frisson.

The latest body of work, generated for a book called Unseen Versailles, (Doubleday & Company, 160 pages, $40) is a documentation of the Sun King’s architectural self-portrait and must, in the end, be compared with Eugene Atget’s eloquent photographic meditation on the subject. Whereas Atget explored the reverberant melancholy of reality, Turbeville attacks her subject as if it were a soundstage at Cinécitta. Only occasionally does she get close to the passionate silence of Atget. There are moments of wan loveliness that are quite special—when Turbeville mimics the monumental rot of Versailles through her brutalized prints, the images can feel very right emotionally. When, however, she plops hoop-skirted models into the frame, it all goes terribly awry. The site is too powerfully evocative on its own; it doesn’t need women swooning in dishabille to make a point. In the end, Unseen Versailles is a flawed documentation, but it does come provocatively close to emancipating a potentially important talent. Turbeville has been a significant influence in fashion photography and I would be the last one to write her off in an art context, especially when her daring experimentation with the photographic surface is becoming increasingly arresting.

Unfortunately the merits apparent in the book literally disappeared in the Sonnabend installation, which was art-directed into extinction. The already intricately manipulated photographs were push-pinned onto raggedy scraps of butcher paper and framed by suspended glass rectangles (sometimes level straight, often askew) on which Turbeville had scrawled with a China marker. The presentation was gimmicky beyond necessity, and ultimately seemed to suppress any photographic information that might have been available. Talk about Unseen Versailles; the installation should have been called “Unseen Turbeville.” Trying to get to the images, I was reminded of Jimmy Stewart’s riposte to Marlene Dietrich in George Marshall’s Destry Rides Again: “Gee, Miss Frenchy, under all that paint, you have a real pretty face.”

Richard Flood