FASHION / Last Tango in Paris

MARIA brought her ghetto blaster, Alfredo turned up in his second-hand chalk-stripe trousers with the not-quite-matching pin-stripe waistcoat, his black shirt and cravat and his black slicked-back hair. Maria brought her grandmother's stockings to wear - very naughty, with a black band at the top - and several pairs of her own little tango shoes in a battered Hermes handbag from the fleamarket. She turned on the music and they danced, their legs spinning in this empty morning flat near the Bastille with its 17th-century staircase and its solitary chair.

Next, they found a free dance studio, and plugged in the tape, and Alfredo and Maria tangoed again - tangoed in the restaurant, tangoed in the street. Maria changed into a black chiffon shirt and chiffon trousers, over the stockings.

The previous day, there had been a casting session at the Cafe Flore, where the American photographer Deborah Turbeville was supposed to choose her model for this shoot - an idea culled from an idle conversation about old Parisian tango bars, which she would work into her hybrid style of reportage and fashion photography. The girls turned up one after another, 'the kind of girls the agencies know I like,' she explained. 'But - you know, there's a French horror film from the Sixties called Eyes Without a Face, where a mad professor's daughter has her face cut up in a car accident and he goes round murdering girls trying to stick their faces on to hers . . . and it was a bit like that. I felt like I'd been seeing the same face for years - just a new batch every time - a different girl but with the same old face stuck on. I wasn't very keen on any of them.'

Then Maria arrived, 5ft 3ins, with her beret and her frizzy curly hair and her little coat and high-heeled shoes clutching the bag in one hand and a tango book in the other. 'You know . . . ' Turbeville said slowly, 'she's got an interesting face.'

Maria is a student at the Sorbonne, but in her spare time she learns to tango. Her grandmother met her grandfather tangoing in Paris. She directed Turbeville to some of the old tango bars. 'My life is tango,' Maria said, like a line from a bad novel. 'Not at university, though' she added, explaining that she had visited Argentina where the 'poor people' worked hard througout the day, but in the evening they have another life, the tango. 'All the things they can't achieve in real life, they can achieve to the ultimate in their tango,' Maria said.

This was all getting a little weird. Off they went in a taxi to look for the tango bars. Maria was chattering away, talking about how the Japanese loved to tango. How, during the war, they were forbidden to do the jitterbug, so they learned to tango. Could it be true? The taxi driver pricked up his ears, turned round to his passengers. He was Japanese. 'I dance tango]' he announced with a triumphant beaming smile. This was getting like a Jim Jarmusch movie.

DEBORAH Turbeville's reputation as a photographer rose on the swell of an essay by the American art critic Hilton Kramer entitled 'The Dubious Art of Fashion Photography', written for the New York Times in 1975, in which he decried fashion photography's recent preoccupations as being 'indistinguishable from an interest in murder, pornography and terror'.

At the time, Turbeville was one of a group of fashion photographers working in New York whose pictures pushed the boundaries, not only of sexuality, but often of bad taste. Helmut Newton was there with his lesbian fantasies; Guy Bourdin was there with his severed heads and murder scenes; Avedon had already been there years earlier with his 'slashed-wrist' pictures in which the model Suzy Parker had enacted a fragile starlet character leaving hospital sporting a nice wool coat and a pair of bracelet-length bandages.

In Turbeville's case she had transgressed simply by attempting to do what fashion photographers for Vogue were supposed to. 'Mr Liberman (Alexander, the creative director of Conde Nast then the art director of American Vogue) had asked me to do some swimsuits. It must have been my third year as a photographer. He said, 'You can handle groups of people. Take five girls. Make the pictures very strong.' We were supposed to shoot them in Peru, but there were problems there, so he said, 'Do it in the studio, make a set, do it in New York'.

'I'd always been interested in old bath-houses and I found this one that was closed and condemned and did the pictures there. I didn't expect them to cause trouble. But I guess when Mr Liberman and the people at Vogue saw them, I suppose there was something strange. They were kind of dreary . . . I think the thing was, people just coudn't imagine why, why you'd do it there, like that.'

The picture she's talking about is one of the most famous fashion photographs of the last 50 years. Five Twiggy-era girls with Biba made-up faces (two blondes, two brunettes, one black girl) are posed laconically around a damp-tiled chamber with enormous old-fashioned metal sluice taps fixed to the wall at waist height. Two girls are on the floor, one looking distinctly stoned; the central figure is reaching up, her hands stretched over her head as if hanging from a bar just cropped from the top of the picture, her legs splayed wide pushing her groin suggestively forward.

Turbeville swears innocence, but, as she told Martin Harrison, for Appearances, his book about fashion photography published in 1991: 'People started talking about Auschwitz and lesbians and drugs. And all I was doing was trying to design five figures in space.'

There was definitely something a little weird about her pictures, they carried an (attractive) atmosphere of decay, a whiff of the crypt, a fascination with the marked and the scarred. She was one of the very first photographers deliberately to give her pictures an aged, 'distressed' appearance. And, curiouser still, she began to build up her pictures into filmic sequences, taping them together roughly on brown paper, repetitive fragments of a story that frequently featured a lonely woman in black amid peeling, bleached-out interiors. Her work, as the New Yorker's photography critic remarked last year 'has never been entirely free of self-consciousness . . . this show is not entirely free from the kind of overload of conceptual and material ingredients that can beset ambitious art students.'

For years, though, magazines still wanted the bath-house effect. 'People always wanted the one great photograph. I got so I couldn't bear to take them, because I could never find it. I found the demand very pressing on me, it sort of blocked me from taking pictures at all. In fashion photography, you can lose something . . . at least I did, I lost my relationship with reality. That's not to say I'm so real now, but I like to take a lot of little photographs. I find that's so much more telling than one 'great picture'. You can take the landscape, you can take what the person's looking at, you can take a detail of their hands, their eyes. I've always taped my pictures together like this from very early on, I used to chop up my contact sheets and put them all together like a little narrative.'

BEFORE she was 20, Turbeville moved from Boston, where she'd grown up, to New York and got a job with Clare McCardell, one of America's most famous designers of the Fifties and early Sixties. She went to Harper's Bazaar as a fashion editor - but hated going round looking at the clothes and especially to the collections. 'I'd get a note from some senior fashion editor saying - 'we find your arrival half-an-hour late for Bill Blass appalling' - I just stopped going.

'I'll tell you one reason I still hate those things now. It's seeing all those people, who you've seen for years, who've spent 50 years of their lives just looking at clothes. I mean, I've got nothing against them. It's not really a feminist point, it's just that I don't want to be there. I find it a little depressing . . . I always did.'

In the 20 years since she began working as a photographer, her work has appeared regularly in most of the Conde Nast fashion magazines, particularly the less orthodox Italian Vogue. She's exhibited around the world - twice at the V&A, at the Beaubourg in Paris, and currently has an exhibition on tour at the Mexico City Museum. She's published two books, one of which, Unseen Versailles, a sequence of pictures taken in areas of the palace not open to the public, won the American Book Award for photography in 1982. She has even photographed a British Rail advertising campaign for Saatchi and Saatchi in London.

Five years ago, she had what she calls a 'real-estate binge' and bought a small flat in Paris and, more importantly, a house in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

The Mexican house has been the key to liberating her from the stalemate of fashion. 'I've become really involved in documenting the lives of people, in Mexico, in Guatemala and Ecuador (this is the subject of the touring exhibition). I want to make a set of pictures that will show all the places and the people - a sort of collective biography. It's changed my vision a lot, living down there. I'm no longer so interested in those strange forbidding things I used to hook myself up with. When I'm there, on the high plateaux, the light is so different, the mood is so different. Moving down there turned me around. I think it's good for me. It made me interested in photography again.'

The Paris flat didn't work out so well. For four years she struggled with the French bureaucracy that comes with renovating a listed building. Finally, she gave up, and put it back on the market, coming to Paris to sign the forms and hand over the keys to the new owner. But it was here, on the day before she relinquished it, that she finally took Maria and Alfredo and the ghetto blaster. Up to the top floor of the house, into the empty flat, for one last fling.

(Photographs omitted)

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