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Deborah Turbeville: The Other Side of Versailles

In 1979, Versailles was not yet the third most-visited tourist attraction in France. The château was actually listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site that same year, and closed for an extensive renovation. American photographer Deborah Turbeville had the chance to stroll through this hibernating palace, exploring the successions of abandoned rooms now a far cry from the opulent feasts hosted by the Sun King. Her timeless images have recently been acquired by the U.S. asset management firm MUUS.
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© Deborah Turbeville, courtesy of the MUUS Collection

“Fashion takes itself more seriously than I do,” said Deborah Turbeville (1932-2013) in an interview with the New Yorker in 2011. “I’m not really a fashion photographer.” Yet the label stuck with her all her life. Her photographs have been featured in the most fashionable magazines, from Vogue to Harper’s Bazaar under Diana Vreeland. However, her work has never been as celebrated as that of her contemporaries such as Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton. Her photographic style is also distinct; she wouldn’t think twice about tearing up or stamping on her photos to lend them an aged appearance, a lived experience, or imperfection – much like life itself.

In the late 1970s, Turbeville was living in Paris. She discovered the Château de Versailles, but was refused access for a fashion shoot. Fortunately, thanks to Jackie Kennedy Onassis – an admirer and a friend! – she was finally granted permission to photograph the estate during its renovation. She spent a whole winter there and presented her work in a book, Unseen Versailles, in 1981. Her images capture the former royal residence in all its ghostly immensity, standing in the shadows, guarded by little more than an army of dusty statues. With a melancholic perspective, she points her camera into every nook and cranny throughout the palace, searching for some mystery or faded luxury.

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“Inanimate figures pile up in each room without drawing the eye any more than the other abandoned objects and debris – hairpins, papers, documents, shoes, children, animals, dresses, wigs, masks, skirts – all fleeting witnesses, all so delicate that an open window might blow them all away,” she wrote in the preface to the book. “These rooms have finally stopped distinguishing between materials, deciding that every single thing from the past has the same narrative value. And we can feel it, as if sketched with a soft pencil, highlighted with the occasional dab of colored gouache – here on a mouth, there on the thread of a skirt, or a light shade on a wig. Everything harks back to a more living, past time.”

From deserted alleyways in the grounds to bedrooms filled with furniture draped in white sheets, some may be surprised to find certain similarities between these monochrome wanderings tinged with taboo and Last Year at Marienbad by Alain Resnais, Turbeville’s favorite directors. Far from the Château de Versailles, a scandalous seat of power turned tourist attraction, the American photographer offers a haunted vision of this excessive place. In fact, this was the objective pursued by Jackie Kennedy, who edited Unseen Versailles for the DoubleDay publishing house: “I wanted her to conjure up what went on there, to evoke the feeling that there were ghosts and memories.”


Unseen Versailles
by Deborah Turbeville, DoubleDay, 1981. Courtesy of the MUUS Collection.

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Article published in the January 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.

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