New York Photo Review
NYPR Archives - 2010

Deborah Turbeville
Past Imperfect 1978-1997

This should have been a wonderful show; instead, it is merely a pretentious show.

Deborah Turbeville, who burst on the scene in the mid seventies with a photographic style very much at odds with the hard edged fashion of the times (typified by Avedon and Penn) has a curious history of her own. In common with other women such as Sarah Moon and Lee Miller, she made the journey from model to photographer, from viewed to voyeur. And along with Cindy Sherman and Claude Cahun she seems to have an instinct for ‘dress up’ and play acting. But her closest photographic relative is Julia Margaret Cameron, whose pageants and tableaux she – perhaps unconsciously – emulates. But where Cameron was Victorian in sentiment, Turbeville is decidedly Symbolist.

Her work unfolds in a twilight realm, its tubercular esthetic both sickly and beautiful. The painterly qualities Turbeville at her best possesses, her expert handling of models and sensitive feeling for interiors as closed circuits of decay give her work a fin de siècle theatricality, slightly maudlin, decidedly decadent, and singularly effective.

One hears the voices of Verlaine and Georg Trakl, even of D’Annunzio and Oscar Wilde, with maybe a hint of Poe echoing in her half empty rooms where sepulchral models drape themselves against denuded décors. And as the distressed printing style (which Photoshop seems to have enhanced beyond remembering) combines with the soft focus, the brown tones, and the quaint costumes we have a very mannered look that all too often seeks to get by on manner alone. This is unfortunate. For awash in a sea of the derivative and mediocre are a half dozen or so truly interesting, even brilliant images. But they are submerged under all that paper, all those scrap heaps meant to resemble magazine layouts and film storyboards. This is the gallery’s fault. Alas, Staley-Wise seems to think Turbeville’s every little scribble immortal, or at least merchandisable, which is more to the point these days. And so we have yet another show characterized by excess and pretension, one that lacks the courage and good sense to let good work speak for itself, enveloping it instead in trendiness and affectation.

Of course there is nothing new about decay, or anorexic, depressed women with druggy eyes. The Symbolists loved all that stuff as did their grandsons, the Surrealists. There’s no reason why Deborah Turbeville should not love it, too, as long as she does it well. And she does. Some of the time. Ms Turbeville, who was once an editor herself, is badly in need of an editor, someone who will ruthlessly eliminate the dross from the gold – the better to make her shine.

Deborah Turbeville
Past Imperfect 1978-1997

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