I was down in West Palm Beach Florida last month, at FotoFusion, and amidst the portfolio reviews and panels, I got a chance to hear esteemed photojournalist Peter Turnley talk about his career while showing an amazing variety of photographs. I worked with Peter for several years when I was a photo editor at Newsweek, and it was great listening to him talk about his work and how he became a photographer. He even showed a photograph that I remember choosing for the cover of one of the international editions of Newsweek (below). Peter had 43 covers for Newsweek when he was a contract photographer there. Sometimes you can learn so much about a person that you never knew before.
I will be paraphrasing some of what he said, but I think Peter’s career and passion are examples people can really learn from. He grew up in a family where “the notion of public service” helped to shape the way he looked at the world. Due to being laid up from a sports injury as a teenager he was introduced to the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, and it opened his eyes. For Peter Turnley, photography is “sharing a response to the world.”
Peter and his twin brother, David, were influenced by Bruce Davidson’s “East 100th St.” project, and while in high school they were drawn to shoot in their own Ft. Wayne, Indiana backyard, on McClellan Street. They got to know the neighborhood and the people, and with one camera traded off photographing them. When the brothers published a book of this work recently they went back to their hometown to show the work. And although the neighborhood no longer exists, the people they photographed 39 years earlier came out to see the photographs and reminisce with the brothers Turnley.
Peter really seemed to find himself when photographing people. They “offered texture to the world,” and so he began his lifelong fascination with the people of the world, traveling to nearly every country on the planet, and covering the range of human emotion and experience. The most exciting moment of his career was photographing Nelson Mandela’s release from prison after 27 years.
Peter’s desire to “pierce the soul” of a person in the news compelled him to shoot, especially someone who has been photographed by so many others. Looking at his work you can see the arc of history from the late 1970s through the 1990s. From Princess Diana’s funeral to Mother Teresa’s funeral; Nixon to Gorbachev and the Pope; and from Nelson Mandela to Richard Nixon.
For Peter Turnley there is no such thing as “objectivity” in journalism. You pick moment to photograph, you point your camera—you’re making a choice. He totally defends the “right to a point of view, as long as it’s honest.” I couldn’t agree more. Just the decision to do one thing over another, or choose one person over another, or one line of thought over another is an action denoting a point of view. So let’s not debate the trivia, and make our judgments based upon the integrity of the information.
From covering wars and famine around the world, the “family of man” has always influenced Peter and his view of the world. He strives to show the “universality of grieving death from war, and the universality of the suffering of war.” It is the juxtaposition of these two sides of an issue and the juxtaposition of two photographs that has captured his interest.
Peter penned a piece for The Online Photographer, "Notes from a Life in Photography" and I encourage you to read it. After such a long and distinguished career it's great to hear someone still filled with such a sense of wonder at the world. He also runs photo workshops around the world and sells his black & white prints of Parisienne life.
Peter has recently been producing eight-page photo essays for Harper’s magazine, where Louis Lapham offered him the chance to be treated "like an author with photographs.” It's a remarkable gift for a photographer, and one of the few places left where someone can show so much of their work in such a respectful way to so many people. And we are all the better for it.
Peter's 50 image photo essay from Haiti, just completed, can be seen here