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Deborah Turbeville was born in Boston, Massachusetts and grew up between Boston and the atmospheric Maine sea coast town Ogunquit. 

As a young student, Turbeville performed as a dancer and as an actor in various local theaters.  She was particularly drawn to choreography, costumes, and sets, and often improvised her own pieces.  She was also drawn to literature and began to read the works of writers like Dostoyevsky at an early age.  This love of theater and literature is closely linked to her later development as a photographer.

After completing school, she moved to New York intending to pursue a career in theater.  However, within a very short time she was discovered by famed fashion designer Claire McCardell and was asked to join her design studio.  Turbeville spent three years working alongside McCardell filling the lead role of sample model and assistant and had the privilege of being witness to the designer's extraordinary innovations in color, texture, and design.  Through McCardell, Turbeville met Diana Vreeland, the famed editor of Harper's Bazaar and later VOGUE, and the eventual director of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Vreeland suggested that Turbeville see her at her offices at Harper's Bazaar, and Turbeville soon became an editor at the magazine.  While there, she worked with renowned photographers like Richard Avedon, Bob Richardson, and Diane Arbus, and soon became recognized for her very personal style as an editor.  At the same time, Turbeville purchased a Pentax camera with a Zeiss lens and began to take her own pictures on trips home to Maine. 

Turbeville's first photographic assignment as a professional came when she convinced the former Yugoslavian government to sponsor a trip through the country for a photo shoot for a magazine in which she acted as both art director and photographer.  She later showed her work to Avedon, who was delighted with Turbeville's out-of-focus images and proclaimed her his protégé, announcing to a skeptical audience that she was “what was happening in the world of photography".  Over the years, her photographs were published in the American, Italian, and Russian editions of VOGUE, Harper’s, VOGUE Casa, W, VOGUE Bambino, VOGUE Sposa, Zoom, Conde Nast Traveler, The New York Times, The London Sunday Times, and Art in America.   Turbeville also photographed special portfolios and advertising campaigns for the designers Emanuel Ungaro, Romeo Gigli, and Valentino (as recently as 2011).

In 1975, Turbeville produced an image that would become one of the most notorious fashion photographs of the last 50 years. Part of a swimsuit shoot for VOGUE, it showed five listless women leaning against the walls of a shower room in a condemned New York bathhouse. The photograph was included in an exhibition at Hofstra University later that year, and a reviewer in The New York Times proclaimed it to be “one of the most beautifully composed pictures in the show,” and noted that it “leaves one wondering if we have not moved beyond the boundaries of fashion photography.” “People started talking about Auschwitz and lesbians and drugs,” Turbeville recalled in an interview quoted in the 1991 book Appearances: Fashion Photography Since 1945, by Martin Harrison. “And all I was doing was trying to design five figures in space.”

Turbeville published several renowned books of her photographs.  Among them are Studio St. Petersburg (documenting her work in Russia), The Voyage of the Virgin Maria Candelaria (documenting her travels in Guatemala and Mexico), Newport Remembered (featuring her photographs of Rhode Island 19th century seaside mansions), and Unseen Versailles.  Unseen Versailles was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy, then an editor at Doubleday, and Turbeville was given unprecedented access to the palace grounds.  Her other books include Wallflower, Les Amoureuses Du Temps Passé, Nostalgia, Casa No Name, Past Imperfect, and The Fashion Pictures.  Her most recent book, Comme des Garçons 1981, which includes photographs specially commissioned by the design house, was published posthumously in 2017.

For the past three decades, Turbeville opened solo exhibitions around the world at galleries and museums such as the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporaneo in Mexico City, and the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Her work is included in the permanent collections of these institutions, as well as in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, among others.

Turbeville divided her time between residences in New York, San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, and St. Petersburg in Russia.  She received a Fulbright grant for her work in Russia, as well as a citation from the Russian Cultural Administration for exposing Russian culture and arts to the world.

Deborah Turbeville died in New York in 2013.

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