The idea of disintegration is really the core of my work," Deborah Turbeville says succinctly, and improbably enough she has worked her way to the top in fashion photography by shooting the latest styles in spookily shabby and incongruous settings. She is endlessly intrigued by decay. In her first try for Vogue, Turbeville stood elegant models in Geoffrey Beene dresses outside a grungy Manhattan cement works. She later shocked Vogue readers by scattering vacant women in bikinis around a bathhouse that reminded many of a gas chamber. And in recent years she has even taken to mauling, mangling, mutilating and throwing dust on the photographs themselves in quest of the worm-eaten effect.
So when Jacqueline Onassis, now an editor with Doubleday, got an idea for a photo book on the ghostly back rooms of Versailles, the arrogant, opulent chateau of France's Bourbons, she naturally picked the high priestess of disintegration. "I wanted her to conjure up what went on there," Jackie says, "to evoke the feeling that there were ghosts and memories." The result is Unseen Versailles (Doubleday, $40), an astonishingly lovely, haunted book that sports a text by best-selling novelist Louis Auchincloss, as well as Turbeville's pictures. Alexander Liberman, editorial director of Condé Nast publications, assesses Turbeville's latest effort as "a pioneering breakthrough in photography."
"I destroy the image after I've made it, obliterate it a little so you never have it completely there," Deborah says of her approach. Still, to capture the unique atmosphere of Versailles took her two years of work and research. "I started by making copious notes on mistresses and discarded mistresses," the 49-year-old ex-model says. "I could see all these women hibernating away in these little rooms, waiting for something to happen. The past, which is so colorful, is buried in those walls, all those voices you hear if you've read any history."
When she finally saw the palace, she was dismayed to find it largely restored to touristy glory. "I thought they were rather sweet rooms, but so what?" she recalls. "But by the time we started working in January 1979, the furniture was coated with dust covers and they began to wrap the statues outside. The trees dropped their leaves and everything looked very mournful and sad, so that sort of enlivened my scenario." To dress down the palace even more she hauled in dead leaves, draped faded-looking models around, and even thought about sneaking in a spiderweb-making machine used in horror movies.
Not surprisingly, Versailles's keepers were aghast. "The curator wanted to include only the finished, slick rooms, which is the last thing someone like me would want," Turbeville says. "I think he will be horrified by the book." Guards were dispatched to lock rooms to prevent her nosing about. "Jacqueline would have to call half a dozen times from New York to get permission," Turbeville recalls. "I got fed up with all the bureaucracy, but if you have problems you can call Jacqueline any time, day or night, and she'll try to resolve them."
Turbeville naturally thinks in scenarios, a habit she traces to her childhood in Boston, where her father was a salesman and, her mother says, "she was a shy and scary child." Her summers were spent in Ogunquit, Maine—"very bleak, very stark, very beautiful," she remembers, adding, "Since then I have always had to have mystery and atmosphere in my life. They draw me out more than anything."
After private school and a brief stint at the University of Georgia, she set out for New York at 19 with nothing special in mind and landed a modeling job with designer Claire McCardell, who, she'd been told, "liked different-looking girls." In 1963 she moved on to Harper's Bazaar's fashion staff, which wasn't quite ready for her. "I worked with incredible people—Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Hiro—and we would make up a fantasy plot before taking the pictures," she says. "Finally Bazaar packed me off and said, 'You're just too much for this magazine.' "
Her first stab at photography turned out, well, bizarrely. "I had all these sort of out-of-focus pictures of the model wandering around," she says. "I bought the wrong camera. All my pictures were blurred." Nonetheless a star was born. Avedon admired her blurs, and nine years later she shot the cement factory spread, which Liberman, then at Vogue, pronounced "the most revolutionary pictures of the time."
Intense, reddish-headed, shy and driven, Turbeville almost always wears black and has a special fascination with anguished, lost-looking women. But she also claps her hands and jumps up and down when pleased and laughs often. "Debbie always knows what she's doing," says her friend New York Times columnist Mary Cantwell. But order seems to avoid Turbeville. On location she streaks around for hours searching for just the right atmosphere, while high-priced models straggle in her wake. "In her pictures people are often lying down," says her assistant, Sharon Schuster. "Sometimes it's because after a day's search and shooting everyone is exhausted."
Turbeville keeps an apartment in Paris but spends as much time in a Manhattan sublet—"I never know what's going to come next," she says of her life. "It's all a surprise"—and she keeps bulletin boards all over the place. "I pin up everything I need to think about—quotations, photographs, old layouts, things people send me." Her phonograph records, naturally, are often scratched.
"In Paris I like to go out and walk for hours and hours anonymously through the streets," she says, "particularly at 'the hour between the dog and the wolf,' between 6 and 8 in the evening. I'm a voyeur." But the anxiety that pervades her fashion work is partly her view of that special world. "Glamour and beauty don't always go hand in hand with emotional security and happiness," she says. "Sometimes the two go the very opposite ways. Some simple, plain woman out in Wyoming probably has a more pleasant life."
Turbeville was married very briefly in her 30s and she has had many boyfriends. She says she loves macho types and calls actor Stephan Lupino, 29, "the closest friend I have at this moment, my confidant, my companion and my lover." Occasionally she thinks of settling down. "God," she exclaimed recently, "sometimes I wish some man would take me away from all this." But she knows that's probably another fantasy. "After all," she concedes, "I'm a bit much to put up with."
'I wanted to convey that all those lives sort of went down the drain'