I was talking to Peter Turnley about our upcoming print sale of a selection of his Paris pictures, which starts next Sunday, and something came up I thought you might be interested in.
Like most top-level photojournalists, Peter's always felt a debt of gratitude to his professional journalistic associates—his editors at Newsweek, the people at Corbis, gallerist Agathe Gaillard, Pierre Gassmann of Picto, and mentors such as Howard Chapnick of Blackstar. But besides those important people, there are what the French call les pères spirituels—"spiritual fathers," although the term might just as easily apply to brothers or sisters or mothers. It implies seeking out a different kind of support—and a desire to belong to a deliberate tradition encompassing more than just oneself.
Starting when he was young, as a new immigrant to Paris, Peter made a deliberate effort to get to know the great photographers of the city. He found the great French master Robert Doisneau by simply looking him up in the phone book. "I didn't have any agenda," he says. "I just wanted to meet him, to be in the orbit of this guy's spirit." He ended up working as Doisneau's assistant.
One lesson Peter remembers is that Doisneau could put his hands on any of his negatives from the previous thirty years within thirty seconds, and he never went to bed before he had developed, contact printed, and captioned every roll of film he'd taken that day. (Peter thinks he would have loved the digital age.) What this meticulous organization did was to allow Doisneau's entire life's work "to breathe, to live, almost like a living organism." Work that you can't find, that you can't share, might as well be lost.
Other encounters were more serendipitous. In 1975, his twin brother David—also a top photojournalist, now teaching at the University of Michigan—called from New York and told him to be on the lookout for an up-and-coming photographer named Josef Koudelka. Peter had never heard the name before.
Not long after that, he was in the Jardin de Luxembourg sitting on a bench with his girlfriend and a man walked by, and Peter noticed him surreptitiously taking their picture, so he jumped up and ran after him—"Did you just take our picture?" The man seemed nervous and claimed to be a tourist, but Peter had noticed his two beautifully brassed Leicas, which were hardly tourist cameras. It was Koudelka.
Koudelka keeps things simple. Some time later, as the two shared a meal at the offices of Magnum Paris, Josef told Peter something he always remembered. He said, "My idea of a good life is I wake up in the morning, I go out and walk, and I make three films [i.e., shoot three rolls —Ed.] a day."
"It does sound like a good life," Peter says. (Does to me too.)
Peter's a very intense guy—that might be an understatement—and as you hear him talk about these people you can hear his enthusiasm take wing. The man who became his best friend among these pères spirituels was Édouard Boubat. They met because Jim Hughes (who also writes for TOP from time to time) had published both their work in the same issue of 35mm Photography. The two became close friends—they met several times a week whenever Peter was in Paris, for many years. (Boubat died in 1999.)
As with many of the great photographers he knew, they seldom talked about photography. The topics of discussion always had to do with world affairs, an engagement with the issues of the day, with...well, life. These days it seems like photography consists of an endless roundel of keeping up with cameras and software. It's important to remind ourselves, at least now and then, that a lot of what's important about photography isn't about photography at all.
I guess the point here is that it's important to know where you come from, and whose work yours builds on. Peter used his many-decades project of Paris pictures to decompress from high-stress photojournalistic assignments, but it wasn't just that. He was eager to belong—belong to the grand tradition of the great photographers of Paris. Knowing many of them personally was a big part of that enthusiasm.
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Andrew Molitor: "Great little piece here, this is the kind of thing I love on TOP! Also, some really good portraits here. Love the one of John Morris, a classic look and a wonderful face.
Featured Comment by Jim Richardson: "Among the luminaries mentioned I was heartened to see the name of Howard Chapnick. Few people warrant the kind of admiration I feel for Howard and all that he did for photography, shepherding young photographers, standing firm for the value of images, working to put photography squarely in the mainstream of serious culture. He made my first book happen, shaping a mass of images into a coherent documentary, and along the way treating a very young photographer with serious consideration. And he was a supremely kind and decent man. One other thing. He headed Black Star, the photo agency. So his hobby was to bet on horses that had "Star" in their name. Pretty human."
Featured Comment by John: "One of my favorite TOP posts ever. You'll likely be back to gear tomorrow, but why not make it editorial policy to once a week address themes like this? 'Wednesday: Photography Unplugged.' The community needs it.
Featured Comment by Debbie: "Wonderful post about a wonderful human being. I gave myself the gift of a workshop in Paris with Peter last May and all I can say is in addition to all of his 'Peres Spirituels' he is now forever one of mine. His delight in sharing his knowledge and his own mentors is unique and life changing. Thank you Mike and especially thank you Peter."