By Jim Colton
A young man walks into the brasserie at 55 Quai de Bourbon on Isle Saint-Louis in Paris, in the mid 1970s. He is confident. Fresh from Fort Wayne, Indiana, he's been practicing his French and is now prepared to ply his newly learned linguistic acumen. He has been repeating to himself, "Je voudrais une bière...Je voudrais une bière...Je voudrais une bière." (I'd like a beer.) Ambling up to the bar, his eyes meet with the bartender and he states, "Je m'appelle une bière!" (My name is beer!)
Without blinking an eye, the grinning bartender responds...in perfect English, "Hello, Mr. Beer, what would you like to drink?" Thus began Peter Turnley's love affair not only with the French culture, but also with La Brasserie de l'Isle Saint-Louis.
I have had the pleasure of knowing Peter for more than 30 years. We worked together at Newsweek magazine and we covered some amazing stories during some equally amazing years. He never failed to produce outstanding work while on assignment. Which is quite a statement considering all the stories he’s covered. But trust me, he's that good!
His travels have taken him to more than 90 countries covering everything from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the fall of the twin towers on 9/11. Throw in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, the Middle East conflict, Chechnya, Rwanda and others and you get the picture. He’s been a busy guy! Turnley has photographed Barack Obama, Mikhail Gorbachev, Nelson Mandela, Yasser Arafat, Princess Diana and Pope Jean Paul II, just to name a few. And along the way, he's had 43 covers of Newsweek.
He also has managed to change with the times and remain proactive and vital in an ever-morphing market. He has a keen understanding of the business of photography and adapted while never compromising his true love for the “found moment.” His philosophy is simple, “everywhere around the world, the things that people have in common with one another are greater than the things that make them different.”
So with his newest book coming out, French Kiss - A Love Letter to Paris, I thought this would be a perfect time to get an inside look at this soft spoken but hard driving -- American in Paris.
Jim Colton: We have a long and rich history…much too long to cover in a single interview. For our readers, can you tell us a little about your beginnings...where you grew up, how you got started and who were some of your early influences?
Peter Turnley: Although I grew up in the fairly conservative Midwestern United States, my parents were unusually progressive in their politics and exhibited a strong sense of social engagement. My father was extremely passionate about the fight for greater civil rights in America. There was a lot of discussion at our dinner table about the reality that the world is often unjust and the idea that the world we wanted to live in is one where people are judged only by the “content of their character,” and that equal opportunity should exist for all.
Henri Cartier-Bresson spoke of the importance of “having a questioning gaze – to question by looking.” I came of age during the late nineteen sixties, a time characterized by questioning the status quo. It was the height of the civil rights movement, the beginning of the feminist movement and the Vietnam War was raging on.
When I was twelve, my family moved to Speedway, Indiana, when my father, who was a dentist, went back to school at Indiana University to become an orthodontist. I think this two-year period had a tremendous impact on my future. We lived in a working class neighborhood, with six family members in a very small, one floor house. Four blocks away was the Indianapolis 500 racetrack and everyone around us seemed to be, in some way, involved with auto racing. Every day during the month of May, leading up to race day, my brother David and I snuck into the track to watch the fastest drivers in the world practice.
We also quickly learned the meaning of real danger. There was a girl in my fourth grade class whose father was an Indianapolis driver. One Monday morning, we learned that her father had been killed the previous weekend when his car crashed into the wall on the Indianapolis racetrack. We learned early that some things in life are mortally dangerous.
In high school, I was an obsessive athlete, and played all sports, with my biggest passion being football. I was a small but hard hitting all conference linebacker and a pretty good punter. There are many skills and thought processes I learned that have proven to be invaluable in my life as a photographer; court sense -- knowing where every player is on the field at any given moment; concentration -- keeping one’s eye on the ball; anticipation -- positioning oneself in the right place at the right time; tenacity -- picking oneself up and getting back in the game when hit hard; and in the spirit of the decisive moment, a readiness to act.
My junior year of high school, I suffered a serious ligament injury from football. While in the hospital, my parents gave me a book by Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Face of Asia, to help pass the time. As I looked through the pages of this book, I was blown away by how this man’s vision informed me that there were all of these magic moments in the continuum of daily life that I was walking by without ever noticing. Inspired by this, and now having lots of time free after school each day due to my injury, I bought a camera, and every night began to photograph the inner city of my hometown. I quickly discovered that the camera became for me, as it has been now for over forty years, like a passport…enabling me to go anywhere, meet people and empowering me with a voice and an opportunity to present the world as I see it.
I learned as much as I could about the history of photography and became influenced by photographers that used photography as a form of public service; the FSA photographers, in particular Dorothea Lange, and others like Lewis Hine, Jacob Riis, and Eugene Smith. I discovered the Family of Man and nightly would go to bed studying the photographs in this book. It almost became my bible, and a cornerstone of much of my view of the world – that in spite of people’s geographic, ethnic, religious, and historical differences, everywhere around the world, the things that people have in common with one another are greater than the things that make them different.
As I developed a fascination with Cartier-Bresson, I learned as much as I possibly could about him. I learned that he had never studied photography but had studied many other subjects including painting. I decided then that I would learn as much as I could about history, sociology, economics, languages, art history, and international relations. I went on to undertake a very broad liberal arts degree at the University of Michigan, majoring in French Literature. After spending a year in Paris, during my college years where I learned French at the Sorbonne, I returned to Paris in 1978. Before working full time as a photographer in Paris, I completed a graduate degree in international relations at Institut D'Etudes Politiques de Paris (Sciences Politiques). I am proud that I am one of the few Americans to graduate with a diploma from this elite French school. This background in twentieth century geopolitics has helped me tremendously in my life as an international photojournalist.
I first went to Paris during my junior year of college in 1975. I would make Paris my adopted home for the rest of my life only a few years later. This was another very important turning point in my life. The French language was like music to my ears and I relished the opportunity in this new environment to reinvent myself. I was fascinated by a vibrant sense of history, cultural and architectural beauty, sensuality and diverse political, philosophical, and ideological points of view. As with my discovery of photography in high school, my arrival in Paris dramatically illuminated my world with a new perspective. Once I discovered Paris, the photography of Robert Doisneau, Andre Kertesz, Brassai, Edouard Boubat, Willy Ronis, also spoke strongly to me in their collective ability to communicate a sense of poetry, history, and magic about the world I was seeing first hand in my new home of Paris.
JC: You have a twin brother, David, who is also a photographer. What was that like growing up and what is David up to these days?
PT: Growing up with my twin brother David (Turnley), I always had a companion and a friend with whom I could do anything. I think that photography is essentially about sharing; sharing what we see and feel about the world around us with others. As a twin, I always had someone with whom I could share. We shared a passion for almost all sports. I always knew a sense of competition as it was always present, but I learned to understand competition as something that was about self-respect and not necessarily about winning. David and I always pushed ourselves, first in sports and then with our common passion for photography. I feel quite fortunate that I grew up with and have as a twin brother, a person who I think is one of the greatest photographers in the world. Several years ago, “60 Minutes” did a piece about the two of us called “Double Exposure,” (see link below) which tells a lot about our life in photography together.
As we both began to travel the world widely – frequently in dangerous areas of conflict – David and I often found ourselves in the same place, working together. It’s been wonderful to work alongside someone who sees and notices things I find inspiring and important. I am proud of the four books that we have created from our collaborations: Moments of Revolution, Beijing Spring, In Times of War and Peace, and McClellan Street.
David has just finished working for five years on a documentary titled SHENANDOAH, a story about a small Pennsylvania working class town where four white football players on the honor roll, got into a fight and beat to death an undocumented Mexican immigrant. He also just returned from two months in South Africa where he has been photographing the South African struggle and the Mandela family as much as any photographer in the world for the last thirty years. David also has a tenure track appointment teaching Documentary Photography at the University of Michigan.
JC: Many photographers believe they have to travel the world to tell compelling stories. I've always been of the opinion that there are many great stories to tell in our own backyards. One of those "local" stories was a project that you and your brother worked on called "McClellan Street." Please tell us a little about that project; what was it that drew you in to that community? And have you been back since?
PT: In the summer between my junior and senior year of high school, my brother and I visited a street just off the downtown area of Ft. Wayne, Indiana, in search for an elderly man who had been in one of our photographs that had won a National Scholastic Photography Prize. The only way to collect our prize was to get a model release from him. We found him sitting on a porch on a three block long street called McClellan Street. As we spoke to him, we noticed that every house had a porch on this street, a working class white and Hispanic neighborhood, and that many children were playing in the street with adults sitting on porches yelling back and forth to each other. We noticed, in spite of the rather poor conditions of the homes, that this street seemed to have a spirit of community. We decided that day that we would spend a year photographing life on this street.
At first, we had only one camera and one lens. Every time we came to the street, we would bring back post card size work prints of pictures we’d made on the preceding visit and we discovered that people quickly began to look forward to seeing us. By the end of the year, most families on the street had a sort of family album of photographs we’d made and we could walk into most houses on the street without knocking and sit down and feel at home.
At the end of that year, David was elected among the two of us to go to New York to show these photographs. We were only 17 and neither of us had ever traveled on an airplane before. David went to Magnum and asked a receptionist if he could show our photographs to someone. He was told that they didn’t do things that way and that he could leave the portfolio and come back and pick it up. David responded that if it was all the same, he had nothing else to do with his time and he’d sit down and wait to see if anyone had five minutes and if not, that would be okay. Lee Jones, then the director of Magnum came in and said to David, “Okay, show me what you’ve got.” She looked at our McClellan Street photographs and then turned to David and said, “I want to see you get a good start,” and picked up the phone and called some of the biggest names of photography in New York at the time: Cornell Capa, John Szarkowski, John Morris and others. John Morris, upon seeing the McClellan Street photographs, called Jim Hughes at “35MM Photography” and we ended up getting several pages and a long article in the magazine, our first publication. It was an incredible boost for two 17 year olds.
I must admit that three decades later, when I look at our book McClellan Street (See link below) I am proud of how much our young vision was at once very fresh, direct, sincere and yet rather sophisticated. I am happy if I am able to embody all of those qualities in my photography now, three decades later.
McClellan Street no longer exists, it was demolished and now most of it is a parking lot, and just about third base of a new semi-professional baseball diamond. I went back to Ft. Wayne to give a talk and presentation in 2007. Many people from McClellan Street attended and we all went to a local restaurant for dinner afterwards. One person who came that night was Hope Garcia, who was 5 years old in 1972 and is now a mother with a large family three decades older. I realized that night the significant role of time and memory that can be embodied within a photograph.
JC: You moved to Paris at an early age and continue to have a home there. Why Paris? And how has living there shaped you as both as an artist and a photojournalist?
PT: From the first day I arrived in Paris in 1975, everything about it was like an emotionally uplifting revolution in my life. The French language was like music to my ears and I enrolled in an intensive program of French Language and Civilization at the Sorbonne. Mornings I would have classes in French and in the afternoons, I imposed upon myself a disciplined approach to doing a photo essay about the old cafes of Le Marais, a very popular and working class district in the 4th arrondissement of Paris where I still live today. By the end of eight months, when I returned to finish my last year of university studies at the University of Michigan, I was speaking French fluently and ended up majoring in French literature as an undergraduate degree.
John Morris had told me that Cartier-Bresson’s prints were made at a lab called Picto. I went there in the spring of 1976 and was given a tour of the lab by a very kind gentleman named Georges Fèvre, the head of the black and white printing service there. I saw men and women in white gowns looking at and discussing the tones of grey in prints of Cartier-Bresson’s photographs lying on a table. I decided at that moment, that I wanted to be a part of that experience. I had never studied photography, not believing much in this approach to becoming a photographer, but decided this lab and its atmosphere was a place where I could learn something worthwhile. There I met Voja Mitrovic, a Serb from Bosnia who had immigrated to Paris in 1967 who was the principal printer for Henri Cartier-Bresson for 35 years. Voja, one of the greatest traditional black and white printers in the world, became a close friend and has printed my own photographs for the last twenty years.
During the early years in Paris, from 1975-1981, my passion turned to photographing in the streets of Paris. At Picto, I was able to print my own photographs and build a portfolio called “Parisians.” In the early 1980’s, I submitted a book layout for a contest for a first book grant and while I didn’t win, André Kertész, a member of the contest jury, voted for my book project. I got to know Kertész, first meeting him in NY when I was 19 and then saw him several times in Paris towards the end of his life. His wonderfully lyrical vision, kindness and encouragement of my photography, all inspired me greatly.
It is important to note that at this time, it was the heyday of the French and international photo agency world. These were turbulent years of political change with the revolution in Iran, the end of the Vietnam War, the zenith of the Cold War, the Solidarity movement in Poland, and the war in Beirut, to name a few. I was very inspired by the photojournalism of many great international photographers at this time, and I began to develop a sense of urgency to travel the world.
When I started to work on assignment for Newsweek Magazine in 1984, the opportunity to travel widely became a reality. I found myself working all over the world alongside photographers from the all of the French photo agencies. I learned so much from these photographers’ creative spirit, resourcefulness and determination. I cherish the camaraderie that I shared with so many of these amazing colleagues and friends, in far away and often quite dangerous places.
- Peter Turnley's Web site
- "Double Exposure," 60 Minutes
- McClellan Street (Indiana University Press Online Bookstore)
- The Online Photographer
- Moments - Photo Essay on Peter Turnley's Web site
- Peter Turnley's Facebook page
- French Kiss
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