Although Peter Turnley is renowned for documenting the human condition around the world, he has also photographed life and romance in Paris, his adopted home since 1975. His tender views of this city’s magnificence and beauty provide a vivid contrast to the harsh realities of his photojournalistic work.
Turnley has captured most major stories of international significance in the past 30 years, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the war in Iraq. His coverage of world conflicts includes the Gulf War, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Somalia, Rwanda, South Africa and Haiti, as well as major refugee populations. His photographs reveal the plight of those who have suffered great hardships and injustice.
Turnley grew up in the conservative American Midwest, though he describes his parents as “unusually progressive in their politics, exhibiting a strong sense of social engagement.” He came of age during the late 1960s, a time marked by questioning the status quo. His father, a dentist, was passionate about the fight for civil rights. “There was a lot of discussion at our dinner table about the reality that the world is often unjust, that the world we want to live in is one where people are judged only by the ‘content of their character,’ and that equal opportunity should exist for all.”
When Turnley was 12, his family moved to Speedway, Indiana, where he was exposed to the fast cars, danger, noise and excitement of the Indianapolis 500. In high school, he became an avid athlete, but during his junior year he suffered a serious ligament injury playing football. “While I was in the hospital, my parents gave me a book by Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Face of Asia,” he says. “I was blown away by this man’s vision. I realized that there were magic moments in the continuum of daily life that I was walking by without noticing.”
Inspired by this, and with lots of free time after school because of his injury, Turnley bought a camera and began to photograph life in his hometown. “I quickly discovered that the camera became like a passport — enabling me to go anywhere, to meet people, empowering me with a voice and the opportunity to present the world as I see it.”
He set about learning the history of photography and became influenced by those who used it as a form of public service — particularly Dorothea Lange and the other Farm Security Administration photographers, as well as Lewis Hine, Jacob Riis and Eugene Smith. “I discovered the Family of Man and nightly would go to bed studying the photographs,” he remembers. “It almost became my bible. In spite of geographic, ethnic, religious and historical differences, the things that people have in common are greater than the things that make them different.”
Turnley developed a fascination with Cartier-Bresson and learned that he never actually studied photography, but rather 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,” Turnley says. He majored in French literature at the University of Michigan and pursued a liberal arts degree, spending a year in Paris, where he studied French at the Sorbonne.
In 1978, he returned to Paris to become a full-time photographer. He first took a job as a printer at the famous Paris photography lab Picto, where Cartier-Bresson’s prints were made. In 1981, he completed a graduate degree in international relations at L’Institut d’études politiques. “I’m proud that I’m one of the few Americans to graduate with a diploma from this elite French school. My background in 20th century geopolitics has helped me tremendously as an international photojournalist.”
Turnley’s decision to make Paris his adopted home proved to be an important turning point. “I was fascinated by the city’s vibrant sense of history, its cultural and architectural beauty, its sensuality, and its diverse political, philosophical and ideological points of view,” he notes. “The photography of Robert Doisneau, André Kertesz, Brassaï, Édouard Boubat and Willy Ronis spoke to me, communicating a sense of poetry, history and magic about the world I was seeing first-hand.”
From 1975-1981, his passion turned to photographing the streets of Paris. Aside from printing for others at Picto, including many great European photographers, Turnley printed his own photographs and built a portfolio called Parisians. In the early 1980s, he submitted a book layout of this portfolio to a contest. Although he didn’t win, André Kertész, a member of the jury, voted for him. “I first met Kertész in New York when I was 19 and saw him several times in Paris toward the end of his life. His lyrical vision, kindness and encouragement of my photography inspired me greatly.”
More of this article can be read in the Fall 2014 issue.