Deborah Turbeville – Past Imperfect, filmic ghosts, grain and the deconstruction of traditional photographic perfection

  • Deborah Turbeville-Past Imperfect-Steidl books-Afterhours Sleaze and Dignity-2

    There are a small number of photographers whose work has in some subtle way influenced my own… a certain stylishness, a delicacy of touch, a ghostly creation of otherly worlds quality, a sense of indefinable time and place, a use of grain, texturing and the deconstruction of traditional photographic perfection.

    I suppose that number would actually be directly Deborah Turbeville and Sarah Moon (and Ellen Von Unwerth in a slightly different, more overtly playful/stylish/fashion orientated manner).

    These are photographers who have a strong fashion background and have taken such aesthetics, genre photography and commissions to somewhere else – nearer to a very personal, fine art vision.

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    I can’t remember now how I first came across Deborah Turbeville’s work but if you should want a seductive, haunting starting point then I would suggest a first exploration of Past Imperfect, the 2007 book published by Steidl.

    This gathers a selection of her work from 1974 through to 1998; the photographs and the book itself are works of beauty, being created and presented in a manner that explores and expands the photography book format and design.

    Deborah Turbeville-Past Imperfect-Steidl books-Afterhours Sleaze and Dignity

    When I was recently re-exploring her work I came across a description of Past Imperfect via photoeye that I thought captured the spirit and stories of her work rather well:

    She pioneered a look of antique decadence, using distressed film and prints to capture models as Miss Havishams in faded fin-de-siecle glory. Some 15 series, structured like short stories or novellas, encapsulate that unique sensibility and elegant aesthetic. They remind the viewer, as one critic has written, of films they would have liked to have seen, and inspire comparisons to Luchino Visconti, Jean Cocteau, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Joel-Peter Witkin. 

    Turbeville’s vision is unorthodox-at once haunted and haunting. She creates those effects with the help of favorite actresses and models, largely unknown, acting as a repertory cast. They interpret her endangered species, anachronisms, out of sync with their time and context, playing mutations in a mannequin workshop, statues in a Paris art school, and automatons in a derelict factory. And they help to create a characteristic sense of fragmented dreams, of dislocation, hallucination and time without boundaries-the past imperfect.”

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    The book is now out of print although details on it can still be found at Der Steidl here. Peruse it further here.


    (As an aside and a look into dedication to the book making process, visit How To Make A Book With Steidl here.)


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