Last night I got the opportunity to attend a presentation given by Photographer/Photojournalist Peter Turnley at the Blanton Museum of Art Auditorium on the UT campus. This lecture was number 13 in a series called “Icons of Photography” put on by Leica and the Austin Center for Photography. I was really looking forward to this presentation, as it was certainly a great night in Austin, and the UT campus was buzzing with activity. As I entered the auditorium I noticed that the entire room was filled with camera geeks, I looked towards the right hand side of the stage, there were plenty of seats at the bottom near where the speaker was sitting so I took a seat right behind him. I got comfortable, got out my camera and decided that I’d take a couple of images of the legend. As the lecture began the room went completely dark except for the screen that was circulating his collection of images from the past 20 years. I was fascinated with his stories, Peter spoke eloquently and passionately for an hour talking about everything from the political turmoil of the 60’s as well as stories about his upbringing in a diverse school as a jock football player that got sidelined in an injury from a ligament tear. This is where it all began, while he was in the hospital for treatment he was given a photography book by his parents of the great French Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson that changed his world. After seeing Cartier’s work, Peter was immediately inspired, he bought a camera and with all of his free time no longer playing sports, he started shooting after school in the black inner city of his home town. During this time Peter and his twin brother David, now also an award winning photographer discovered a street in their hometown called McClellan Street. They decided to shoot in this neighborhood for a year as a project which yielded some amazing groundbreaking work. The work was published with great acclaim in Popular Photography and, at the age of 17 both were published photographers.
Peter then went on to discuss a summer project he was working on for the Office of Economic Opportunity in California during his time going to school at University of Michigan. It was a 4 month photo-documentary project photographing poverty stricken people in California, this involved travelling up and down the coast of California photographing people that were not so economically fortunate. Shortly after this project, these photos were published throughout California. He then traveled to New York and showed these photos to a colleague named Eugene Smith that encouraged him to become a photographer because he said that he “had the heart for it” Peter took the advice to heart and dropped out of school. He decided to go to France using money he made working in highway road crews, where he stayed for 8 months studying French at the Sorbonne. He fell in love with the country and the French language. He then went back to the University of Michigan and earned his degree in French Literature. He then decided that he wanted to go back to France and so he did and ended up getting a Master’s degree in political science from a school he called the “Harvard of France”. Peter admitted that he never formally studied photography, but always wanted to be a photographer. Peter worked as a printer in France and eventually worked as an assistant for the great French photographer Robert Doisneau. He then started doing photo assignments for the New York Times, Newsweek, Time magazine as well as other French publications. In May of 1984 Newsweek sent him out with a reporter to complete a photo-essay and a story on the living veterans of D-Day. He went out to Normandy and worked with many different veterans, getting the story of what occurred on June 6, 1944. After the project completed he handed the slides to the bureau chief at Newsweek in the France office, one of the slides got the chief’s attention. It was of a soldier kneeling at the grave of his buddy that had died in battle next to him on Omaha Beach. It just so happened that the owner of Newsweek Kathryn Graham, was also there in the Paris office. She saw the slide of the soldier and stated that this image will be the cover of our next weeks’ edition, globally. Peter then went on to work for Newsweek for the next 20 years traveling to over 90 countries covering world conflicts in the Balkans (Bosnia), Somalia, Rwanda, South Africa, Chechnya, Haiti, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Iraq (2003), the Gulf War (1991), and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Over the course of his time at Newsweek, Peter got 44 front covers.
As the images continued to circulate, it was like a trip back in time. I recall when I was a kid my folks subscribed to Newsweek. I recognized every cover that he shot. Many of the images and stories were of human suffering. He told a story about the conflict in Haiti and how there were so many bodies everywhere. As painful as the images were to see and hear about, I could appreciate how he put himself in harm’s way to bring these images back. Not all of the images were disturbing; many were of France, street photography, café’s and lovers.
Peter mentioned a few things that I took from the lecture that I reflected on -
He said that one of the most intelligent things that he did early on was seek out his hero’s. Not because he wanted something from them but because he wanted to be touched by their spirit and be in their orbit.
Peter defined his 40 year relationship with the camera as pretext and a reason to enter others’ worlds and additionally, the camera also offered a way for him to speak about his feelings about the worlds that he was discovering.
One of the most interesting things he mentioned and something that I didn't know is that most people think that photojournalists are dispatched to cover events, when in reality they are not. They are expected to have a pulse on what is going on in the world and respond appropriately.
As the evening went on Peter told many more fascinating stories, the last one was of one of the hero’s from 9/11. It was focused around an image that he captured at ground zero of a firefighter that had just lost a colleague in one of the towers. The whole story of how he even got in to take the image was an interesting story in and of itself.