Interview with Photographer Peter Turnley: Moments of the Human Condition (Part 1)

Interview with Photographer Peter Turnley: Moments of the Human Condition (Part 1)
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I recently visited Cuba for the first time. As a photographer, I was blown away by the friendliness of the people, the uniqueness of seeing 1950's vintage American cars on the streets everywhere, the colors, the textures, and the sights and sounds of the streetscapes.

While I was in Havana, I had the opportunity to visit the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes where I viewed a photo retrospective by acclaimed photographer, Peter Turnley, entitled Momentos de la Condició Humana (Moments of the Human Condition).

© Peter Turnley

Upon returning to New York, I decided to interview Peter in order to learn more about his fantastic retrospective from his point of view. What follows below is the first part of my interview with Peter. A second part of the interview will be published in the near future.

For context, Peter is a remarkably talented and acclaimed photographer who has covered major news stories across the globe for several decades. His photographs have appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine 43 times.

In the gallery below, and with Peter's permission, I have included several of Peter's photos from his current retrospective in Havana. Peter currently also has two excellent photography books available:

Ben Arnon (BA): When did you know you wanted to be a photographer? Tell me about your history growing up and how photography became your passion and your career.

Peter Turnley (PT): When I talk about how I started in photography and my life in photography, I think it's really important to speak about everything that has impacted my view of the world. Among those things would certainly be where I grew up. I grew up in the Midwest. I'm from Fort Wayne, Indiana. And while I come from one of the most conservative states in the United States, it happens that my own family was very progressive politically.

So I grew up in this environment, at a young age, that was this dichotomy of a world around me that was often quite conservative in many ways - politically and humanly - and at the same time a home life where almost nightly at the dinner table we would have very vibrant conversations about civil rights, about the notion of equality, about whether or not the American dream was an ideal or a reality. And my father and mother both very much always underlined a notion that one's life should essentially be devoted to trying to make the world a better place. So there was always a very fundamental notion of public service that I grew up around.

I was also born an identical twin. I was born into a family with four children and my parents represented a really powerful force in my values. My father was a guy that, while he was an orthodontist, his job in many ways didn't actually describe him very well. I've met a lot of people around the world who are very talented. My father was probably among the most eclectically knowledgeable people I've ever been around. He was a really good football player but he was also an amazing figure skater and a dancer. He was a very avid birdwatcher. Both of my parents had incredible knowledge of world history and they had, in their retirement, a wonderful antique business because they both had an eye for American country antiques. And my father was very good at refurbishing antique furniture for example. My mother was a pianist so every night when I went to bed, I went to sleep hearing really beautiful music.

A fundamental aspect of my childhood was that I was an obsessive athlete. Both my twin brother, David [who is also an award-winning professional photographer], and I played every sport every season. There are so many analogies between sports and photography.

When I was 16, I had a serious knee injury playing high school football. While I was in the hospital my parents brought me a book of photography by Henri Cartier-Bresson. I don't know how they had the good sense to even know who he was in 1971 Fort Wayne, Indiana, but they did. And as I laid in the hospital, I was blown away by the way in which this gentleman's vision informed me that there was all this imagery, and poetry, and amazing magic to daily life that I was walking by without noticing.

This was the early 1970's, so it was also a time of a lot of tummult, both in the United States and worldwide. I had an older brother and an older sister that had gone away to school on the east coast to very good schools. So within my family, even at the age of 16, I was very aware of the national debate that was going on around civil rights, around the beginning of feminism, around a whole notion of questioning everything. 1968 and the early 70s was a time when, if you were 19 years old, you almost certainly were not in agreement with the essential values of your parents. It was also a time of protest and change and a time when young people questioned everything. And that was not considered unpatriotic. It was actually considered a form of public service to question what was.

When I was 16, after the knee injury and after being in the hospital and coming across this book of Cartier-Bresson photos, I bought a camera. Now I had time on my hands after school I'd never had before because every night prior to that since the sixth grade I'd been involved in a sports practice. So every night from about 3:30 - 7 pm I would drive down to the inner city of my hometown, which was a very mid-sized industrial city, and I would walk the streets of the inner city of my hometown. From that very moment photography - and the camera - really represented two essential things for me.

One was the camera became a form of a passport which allowed me to go anywhere and to feel welcome. Secondly, and maybe most importantly, it offered me a voice. I would come home and I would develop the latest roll of film that I had made. And I would make little work prints and pictures. I would show my family sitting at the dinner table a moment that I had seen that day. I'll always remember the spark in their eyes as they responded and reacted to what I had seen.

So I had this sense from the very beginning of having found a way to speak and having found a voice. I also had this sense that not only did I find a voice but that I was offering a voice to the people that I photographed. A voice for groups of people that too often had gone unnoticed or unheard. A lot of the people that I photographed in my early days in my hometown were very working-class, and overnight with this early connection to photography, my world just opened up.

Because of my interest in Henri Cartier-Bresson, I learned everything I could about him and I learned that he had a pretty strong conviction that vision is mostly a function of what we know about the world, not what we know about photography. On the heels of that inspiration I had the idea that it was not a good use of my educational time to study photography. That one's vision would be enhanced by learning anything and everything one could about the world. Therefore in college I had a very broad liberal arts degree. And when I was a junior in college I dropped out of school for a year and I went to Paris.

When I arrived in Paris, the French language was like music to my ears. It was a really dynamic time. France in 1975 was a time when the populace was divided directly down the middle between the left and the right. The Communist Party had 12% of the population in 1975. The socialist party had 38% of the population. And there was this really dynamic debate about the essential core of existence. There was no consensus. It was also a time when only three hours away was the Berlin Wall. And the realities of 1975 France were the realities of the Cold War and, at that point, the world knew very little about anything happening on the eastern side of the Berlin wall.

So when I came back to college I majored in French literature and I had this singular obsession that I was going to move back to France. At that point I knew I had a strong passion for photography but I never knew if I was going to make a real living at it. When I arrived in France to live full-time in 1978, I spent a year when I graduated from college as a manual laborer, building concrete highways. It was the best paying job I could get without qualification. I saved about $20,000 and in the fall of 1978, I went to Paris - not having a grand plan - but I knew I was going to offer myself at least a year.

Almost immediately I got a job working as a printer in a great photo lab where Cartier-Bresson's prints were made and I also enrolled in a graduate program in one of France's most elite schools - a school of political science. It turns out that I was one of the rare Americans that ever graduated with a full degree in international relations from this school. I was a classmate of the former French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 1981.

All the time during those early years in Paris, I didn't know for sure if I was ever going to be able to make a living as a photographer. However, because I worked at the film lab I could get my film developed. I learned how to make great prints, and daily, I made photographs with my Leica of daily life moments in Paris. I built this very well-printed portfolio of photographs of Paris. In 1981, when I graduated from the school, I knew I wanted to stay overseas and I knew I loved traveling, so I I took the foreign service exam thinking that I might want to become a diplomat. I took the law board exam also thinking I might want to go back to law school. I did really poorly on the English language on both exams. I'd been studying and writing in French for three years. So overnight a large part of my destiny was decided for me that I wasn't going to be going in the foreign service and I was not going to be going to law school.

In some ways I was left to do the thing that I wanted to do most which was to try to find a way to make a living with photography. I found the phone number of the great French photographer Robert Doisneau - I think in the phone book - and I called him, not really wanting him to give me anything but I had this kind of credo for a long time that I always wanted to meet my heroes in photography. I thought that if I would just meet them that something might rub off about them in terms of a spirit that would help me on my way.

Therefore, I actively sought out my heroes. I met Cartier-Bresson and he became a friend that I knew and saw many times up to his death. I met Édouard Boubat who was one of the all-time great French photographers. And when I met Doisneau, he was fascinated that an American from Indiana had gone to this very elite school of political science and for the first 45 minutes we never talked about photography. Then when he looked at my portfolio of photographs of Paris he asked me two questions: if I wanted to be his assistant and if I wanted to be introduced to the director of his photo agency, Rapho, which was one of the great photo agencies in Europe at the time. I said yes to both things and that was a real turning point in my life.

I started to go daily to Doisneau's Atelier in the southern suburbs of Paris and I would print many of his pictures. I also began to get assignments from this agency, Rapho, for very prominent publications like the New York Times, Time, Newsweek, and some French publications. That was the first time in 1981 where I was making pictures that were not only photographs that I chose out of my own personal interest. I was trying to fulfill the requirements of an assignment to illustrate a story. That was in many ways a very new way of thinking but I embraced it and I actually loved every assignment I had. I loved the challenge of how - no matter what the interest level of the assignment - of trying to do the best I could to make an interesting photograph.

BA: Did you end up having a big break that changed the trajectory of your career?

PT: In 1984 I had a big break. Newsweek magazine sent me out to Normandy to do an assignment that almost doesn't exist anymore. They actually sent me for a month to do a photo essay along with a writer about all the living veterans of D-Day, one of the most important moments of world history in the 20th century.

I had just graduated with a degree in international relations and this direct connection with this moment in world history was so powerful for me. This direct connection with all these men and women from America, England, Canada, Australia, Germany, French people that lived along the coast. I made a photograph of an American soldier that had been a veteran of D-Day on June 6, 1944 who was kneeling in front of the grave of his best friend who was killed on D-Day. He had not been back to the American cemetery in Normandy in 40 years. That photograph was the cover of Newsweek that week - both on the domestic and international magazine - and many pages of pictures were published inside the magazine. After that, Newsweek offered me an annual contract to become their photographer based in Paris, starting in 1986.

BA: What was it like to be on assignment for Newsweek?

PT: Most people have this sense that photographers are dispatched by a news outlet. There is this notion that a photographer is called and told to go here and go there. However, in a period of 20 years, it almost never happened that anyone called and said 'Turnley, we want you to go here.'

It was expected that I would make the call first, that I would make my own analysis every week of what the most important story worldwide was in terms of news and history. I listened to the BBC world service every hour and I read three or four newspapers every day. I found that my studies of international relations, geopolitics and world history really helped me make an interesting synthesis of kernels of glimmers of news I was picking up in newspapers and on the radio.

So when I would hear, for example, that people were marching in the streets of Leipzig, East Germany in the summer of 1989, prior to the fall of the Berlin wall, I would say 'wow, this is not business as usual, this is really significant and something important that's going on.' And I would call Newsweek and say this is what's going on and we should be there and most often they would agree.

Beginning in 1984 I began to travel the world. I traveled to over 90 countries and I covered most of the major new stories of the world during the next 30 years, almost up to the present time.

BA: You currently have a major photo exhibition in Havana, Cuba. Can you describe the exhibition from your perspective and how it ended up in Havana?

PT: I'm currently having a major retrospective exhibition at one of Cuba's most important museums, the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, which is Cuba's museum of fine art. This is truly one of my life's greatest honors. I am, apparently, the first American photographer, since the Cuban Revolution, to be offered a major solo exhibition at Cuba's fine arts museum.

The title of the exhibition is Momentos de la Condicion Humana, which means in English Moments of the Human Condition. The exhibition represents 130 photographs from over 40 years of visual expression and from more than 90 countries of travel. The guiding light or motif of this exhibition is the idea that life includes points on the spectrum of the human condition that goes from one edge, where life is at its most beautiful, most tender, most poetic, graceful, loving and uplifting, joyful, all the way to the other edge of the spectrum to where life encounters moments of hardship, oppression, inequality, racism, disaster, war, conflict, where life is far less than than what it could be. And everything in between. The whole spectrum of daily life, of human beings all over the world. The selection of photographs that was made for this exhibition came from more than 25,000 images that I've made over my entire life.

In choosing the photographs for the exhibition there were several guiding lights for me. One was that a photograph had to go well beyond simply an event; there had to be aspects of the photograph the touched on universal themes of life, that were timeless. Second, I wanted to choose photographs that had undeniable visual power, that touched my heart and hopefully would touch the hearts of other people. Photographs that always would be a reflection of a very strong visual expression in all ways: composition, light, texture, color, and most importantly, humanity and heart.

If there is one word that underlines the most important guiding light of my selection for this exhibition it would be the human heart. Cartier-Bresson used to say that ideally the process of making a photograph would be where a neuron leaped straight from the heart to the finger and bypassed the brain. A photograph is the reflection of stopping a moment that touches one's heart.

I think that communication is essentially all about storytelling, and stories represent many things. Stories don't necessarily have to be linear. They can be very poetic. They can be an ocean of impulse, of texture, of feeling. I think really powerful stories most often ask questions that don't have easy answers. I don't have any desire when I make a photograph to hit the viewer over the head and to tell them this is what I want you to think. I am much more interested in sharing with others something that I felt. The answer to what makes a story powerful is in many ways very elusive, and that's what makes it so exciting.

I think that powerful communication most often needs to be authentic. There has to be a sense of spontaneity, of something that feels believable and real. Even if it's incredibly confusing and even if it's something we really dislike, or even detest, as much as something that we love.

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