The Turner Touch: An Interview with Pete Turner
By Janis Bultman
Published in Darkroom Photography Magazine, December 1985 and in Legacies: Interviews with Masters of Photography from Darkroom Photography Magazine, 2018.
“That blue is my favorite color,” says Pete Turner (born 1934), referring to my royal blue sweater. This isn’t news. My sweater happens to match the blue director’s chair on which he’s sitting, the fixtures in the bathroom, and many of the other furnishings in his compact Carnegie Hall studio. I mention that green is my favorite color, but few people look good in green. “Cole Weston looks good in green,” says Turner, and launches into an anecdote involving a recent Weston trip to New York, a Japanese restaurant, and quantities of sake—colorful talk from Pete Turner, master color photographer.
Turner’s long and happy career has been blessed not only by his prodigious talent and love of high-tech but with his knack for being in the right place at the right time. As a member of RIT’s class of ’56, he was one of the first to graduate from an accredited university course in photography. He joined the army in 1957, and was assigned to the pictorial service division, where he headed an experimental Type C lab. A perquisite of his army duty was the lush—and uncommon—color portfolio with which he later wooed magazine editors. He worked for Horizon, Esquire, Look, Life—all the big ones—before opening a commercial studio in 1966, just as the magazines started foundering. Since then, Turner has created his vivid Kodachrome fantasies and cool, graphic science fictions for the likes of Citicorp (the City of Tomorrow campaign) and Steven Spielberg (the famous Close Encounters poster). Testimony to another special Turner touch is the exceptional number of his assistants who’ve moved on to highly respectable careers of their own, among them Eric Meola, Anthony Edgeworth, Michel Tcherevkoff, Ted Kaufman, and Steve Krongard. In certain circles, the Turner studio is known as Pete Turner U.
Our interview takes place on the narrow, blue-upholstered balcony overlooking the studio, attainable by a perilously steep spiral staircase. Below, Turner’s studio manager confers with a duo of business-suited clients, while a second assistant mans the duping machine, and a third fields phone calls. Above, we talk.
JB: You’re almost as famous for your assistants—many of whom have become top commercial photographers in their own right—as for your own photography. What’s your secret?
PT: My assistants hire their own replacements. As the photographer, I feel I’m not really aware of the vibes with the staff—who gets along with whom. I try not to interfere with their decisions unless I sense someone’s really not right for the studio. Michel Tcherevkoff was the first studio manager here. He hired Eric Meola.
JB: And the rest is history. Have you ever hired anyone over their objections?
PT: Only once. That was the case of Anthony Edgeworth. The assistants thought he was too old. He was in his mid-thirties and had been with Ralph Lauren in the clothing business, as well as involved in a few other nonphotographic pursuits. He had absolutely no experience. But I saw something in Anthony. He really wanted to be a photographer. I figured anybody that age who wanted to do something that badly should have the chance. We hired him, and he worked out wonderfully. He turned out to be a very good shooter. Just excellent.
JB: Most of your assistants, Edgeworth excluded, have been photography school graduates—as you are. Is that a requirement?
PT: Not really. I think schools are great. But John Harcourt, who runs the studio now, is self-taught. [Turner leans forward conspiratorially.] They’re down there right now talking about scanners and million-dollar pieces of equipment that can do everything—probably drive you around the block. These are things I know nothing about.
JB: How many people work here?
PT: Three. Phyllis Giarnese, Rob Atkins, and John. Phyllis does production and runs the business side of the studio. She runs interference. Rob runs our duping program full time. Our dupes are made in multiples of between forty and seventy-five per image and disseminated worldwide through the Image Bank. We use a Marron Carrel printer. You just punch in the number of chromes and the machine does all the work for you. It beats the old duping system of one at a time. And when we get big jobs, we hire freelance assistants.
JB: Is commercial photography as lucrative and glamorous as it’s made out to be?
PT: Well, I think it was very lucrative. It’s extremely competitive right now and the mass-market magazines, which were my entrée to commercial photography, have dribbled down to nothing. In the old days, if you published in Look, Life, Holiday, or Esquire, almost every art director saw your photos and looked at them very carefully. Now, there are all these special interest magazines like Popular Boating, Popular Golf, popular this, popular that. So if a photographer shoots a boating story, it goes into Popular Boating, and only those enthusiasts will see it. In the old days, it went into Sports Illustrated, and everybody saw it. But it’s fun to be involved in photography today. Or film. Or writing. When you look at the world and some of the jobs people have to do, you appreciate having work like this.
JB: If you can make a living at it—which you’ve obviously managed to do. Is specializing in color part of your secret?
PT: Well, I didn’t get interested in color because I thought I’d make more money at it. I’ve just always loved color. But there’s no doubt that I have a good standard of living. I have a nice studio. I have a condominium here in the city and a house and property out in East Hampton. I’m not on welfare. But acquisitions were never too much of a thing with me. I just need to be able to get away for a weekend out in the country. I just need a nice fireplace and some nice sticks around me.
JB: Your career seems to have been charmed from the start.
PT: It wasn’t all that easy. There were very few magazines that counted, and boy, if you wanted to work for them, you had to be established. My big break came after I’d been out of the army for five or six months. I hooked up with the Freelance Photographer’s Guild, and one day a fellow came to the office looking for someone to spend six months in Africa. Did I want to go? I said, “Yippee!” The guy was with Airstream Trailers, and they wanted me to photograph a promotional trek through Africa. They set me up with an RV that had everything in it. It could go over anything.
I came back with photographs of Africa, and I also had images I’d made while I was in the army, when I ran a Type C lab. In fact, it was my duty in the army to go out and take pictures and make color prints. So I had a big portfolio of C prints and pictures of Africa.
I made the rounds with the portfolio, which was unusual because of the amount of color, and met Harold Hayes, then the editor of Esquire. He took to me. He was a great editor because he knew how to direct a photographer. And he was a wonderful mentor. He’d say, ‘I’d like you to shoot John Dos Passos.” And I’d say, “John who?” Harold would just laugh. He’d say, “Well, he’s an interesting guy. He’s written a few books.”
JB: You were doing a lot of editorial work in the Sixties. Then you switched to commercial illustration. Was that an abrupt change or something that came about gradually because of the market?
PT: It happened in 1966.
JB: That sounds fairly abrupt.
PT: I’d one an entire issue on Scandinavia for Holiday. When I came back, I learned they had both new editors and a new art director. No one had bothered to tell me while I was away. I was absolutely shocked. It seemed so unprofessional. Here I was doing an entire issue of their magazine, and no one took the time to telex me about these changes. I came back with the pictures, and they ended up using what I considered to be outtakes—almost the opposite of what I’d been aiming for. It was pretty depressing at the time.
Then, looking around, I realized a lot of magazines were having problems. I decided since I’d been making reasonably good money through advertising anyway, why not open a studio? That’s exactly what we did.
JB: But you do still take on editorial assignments.
PT: Yes. If there’s something I really want to photograph, I’ll get myself an assignment, although I really lose money on editorial work. I have to maintain my staff here, and then I go off to, say, Australia, into the outback. With jet lag and editing time and everything else, you’re talking three to four weeks. But it lets me get out there and make my own images. Ultimately, I do make some money by distributing them through the Image Bank. I went to India and Africa for Geo. Most recently, I did a story on the Pinnacle Desert in Australia for Science Digest. I work for Omni. Those are the fun things. But basically, our overhead advertising covers our overhead.
JB: Do you ever turn down commercial assignments?
PT: Not very often. But if they’re really not my cup of tea, I recommend somebody else because it would be suicidal to accept some job that you really feel you couldn’t do good work on. This town is unforgiving that way.
JB: I’ve heard you have a particular loathing for food photography.
PT: I’ve tried it a few times, but it’s not for me. God help you if you ate that junk! You’d die instantly. I’m more into high-tech stuff.
JB: Well, you’ve certainly got quite a setup here for that sort of work.
PT: When we came here in 1967, this place was a shell. There was no balcony here. We gutted it and built a nice little studio. We’ve hung out here ever since. I love this place. It’s not really big. This isn’t a factory. When we do a big shoot, we rent a film studio. You can mess it up and do whatever you want.
JB: Your studio looks very well organized.
PT: Looks are deceiving. We’re in the process of spring-cleaning. You open something up, and it’s a can of worms. Literally. You reach in, and it’s squirming. Whoa! You say to yourself, “I’ve been looking for this! And doesn’t that belong over there?”
JB: Do you have a typical routine for setting up a photo session here?
PT: We have a very definite routine for that. We’re not a shine ‘em up and grind ‘em out type studio. We try to service the client in a special way. We test prior to the shoot, so if I were shooting tomorrow, we’d test the lights tonight. We try to minimize all risks. Not only that, but it means we can give the art director something to look at when he comes by. We can project it onto the screen, and he can say, “Gee, I like this,” and, “Can you change this a little bit?”
JB: What cameras and lenses do you use?
PT: Nikons exclusively.
JB: Why not a larger format?
PT: Well, I have to take that back. I do on occasion use a larger format when I’m working with multiple elements or special effects, mainly because we send it out to a lab for assembly, and it makes it a little easier for them. But that’s rather rare. I find the combination of Nikon lenses and Kodachrome 25 to be excellent. One other thing, in New York, we have the wonderful advantage of New York Colorworks—and this is an undisguised plug. They offer push- or pull-processing, and even change color for you. About a year ago, we were shooting in a big studio on the West Side. It was a very expensive shoot—about $100,000. We set up and discovered we needed more light, but didn’t have the time to double up on the lights, so I said, “Let’s just push that film.” We did tests, figured out what we wanted, and the lab took care of the problem. It saved us a lot of money because we would have been hanging lights until midnight, dealing with double shadows and all sorts of things.
JB: You’re often quoted as saying that, for you, taking the photograph is only the very first step. What typically happens next?
PT: In the old days, the late Fifties and early Sixties, I used to filter things on the spot. But let’s say I used a red filter, then came back and said, “Gee, I don’t think that red works.” I’m in a lot of trouble. So I started shooting everything normally. I might do a few frames with a filter to remind myself that this should have a heavy blue or a heavy whatever. But if you start in neutral and then go into the optical printer, to the second generation, which is our finish, then you have the option of using any filter. You’re never stuck.
JB: You often do much more than add a color filter to an image though. Many of your futuristic images, like Earthrise and Twin Planets, are montages.
PT: That’s right. I often shoot things with a black background, so I can use them in an assembled photograph later on. [He points down the length of the balcony, to where a double-tiered slide projector system has been set up.] We use that for overlays, to position and size the various elements and to give us a rough idea of the final image. We project a very complicated grid with latitude, longitude—the whole works—onto the screen and take a Polaroid of the screen for a record. When we’re ready to assemble, we use the same grid on the optical printer so everything will be positioned perfectly.
JB: I understand you’re a science fiction fan. Do you have a favorite author?
PT: I love Arthur Clark.
JB: Have any particular writers or works inspired your photography?
PT: Not really. Science fiction has been an inspiration in general. It gave me a lot of ideas for montages. When we worked on Spielberg’s Close Encounters poster, they came to us because we were doing this sort of thing.
JB: You’re probably best known for your futuristic imagery. Pete Turner and high-tech are virtually synonymous in art directors’ minds. Is it ever frustrating to be so typecast?
PT: No, I like that best. It’s fun to travel in your imagination
JB: At one time, you were part of a cooperative venture to promote color photography as an art—when you opened the Space Gallery with Jay Maisel and Ernst Haas. Since then, you haven’t done much exhibiting yourself.
PT: No, none whatsoever. If I’m asked to be part of an exhibit, I’ll say yes, but I don’t actively seek out exhibitions. I am printing though—making units of fifty dye transfers. They’re not on the market. I consider them sort of a legacy for my family. It’s not a cheap venture, to say the least. We’re in the process of making gifts to a very few museums. For instance, the Metropolitan accepted a selection of what I consider to be my best work for their permanent collection. That was one of Weston Naef’s last gestures.
JB: Do you find that many museums and galleries still have a prejudice against color work?
PT: Yes, it’s unfortunate. Admittedly, there are problems with color. If you print on inferior material, it’s going to fade. But dye transfers, and apparently Cibachromes, are fairly archival in dark storage, with good humidity controls. All color under light will fade eventually. Paintings fade. And they get dirty and the varnish cracks. I’m more worried about the paper and emulsions holding up than the dyes fading. And for exhibitions, if you don’t use ultraviolet light, no problem.
JB: You’ve been a professional photographer for close to thirty years. How have you managed to maintain your energy and enthusiasm, not to mention imagination, for so long?
PT: I don’t have to get up at 4 a.m. and work until 2 a.m. because I surround myself with a really good management team. My studio manager, unfortunately for him, takes the brunt of that kind of thing. I see myself as more of an advisor or director. We operate more like a film studio here than like a still photography studio. I feel you can waste yourself if you stick your nose into everything. John has complete freedom to make his own decisions. I’ve done that with all my people. If you don’t give a person responsibility, you take away his soul. You ask why most of them got to be successful? The trick is to say, “Here you go, buddy. It’s all yours.”