Great photographs are works of the imagination. They have their own self-contained life of light and composition, emotion, and symbolism. But like the words in poems they evoke experiences beyond the literal and the explicable. They capture a moment in time and space, but they also open up a world of sensations, an entire universe of experience.
For Peter Turnley, who is one of the world’s great photographers, that universe is the human condition, fraught as it is with hope and fear, joy and tragedy, and, again, always, indomitably, with hope. The word “humanity” is hugely overused, a word for philosophers, lawyers and politicians. Peter’s photography is about humanness, the frailties and strengths of real people leading their real lives, whether in war or peace, in poverty or prosperity.
There is no photograph in this grand retrospective that is not of a human being, and apart from the place and the year that the picture was taken we are given little else in the way of written explanation.
In fact, for photographs such as these, nothing else is needed.
We may be curious about the stories that exist behind them or around them, but we do not need captions to feel their impact. We do not need to be told why we need to care. The images affect us in the way that all great art affects us, reaching, like music, into our souls and touching emotions that we cannot really begin to articulate.
Peter, who has been my friend and colleague over the course of 30 years in Paris and in the world’s war zones, began his serious work as a photographer when he was still in his teens, and he and his twin brother, David, began recording daily life among the marginalized Americans in the Turnleys’ hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana.
If some of those photographs are reminiscent of the great Depression-era work of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange that should not be surprising. The people of McLellan Street in Fort Wayne were living their own Depression, their own saga of deprivation and desperation in the 1970s. But Peter, as a boy of 17 or 18, discovered not just the tragedy of their lives, his lens found their resilience and even their humor.
How can one look at Peter’s photograph in Parrish’s barber shop on Main Street, with the man just standing up, freshly coiffed, the woman appraising his new look, the barber shaking the cut hair onto the floor, without living in that scene and feeling, somehow, that one knows the people? In another unforgettable photograph a young woman looks out the rear window of a pickup truck with an American flag decal on it. Is that fear in her eye or calculation of some sort? Is she plotting an escape from this life? We can only imagine. And we do.
When Peter was still in his twenties, he moved to Paris to study with the greatest photographers of the century and with the people whose technical mastery of light and shadow in the darkroom brought the work of those photographers so vividly to life. His exploration of the Paris streets became a love affair with the city and its people that continues to this day. An old woman gazing out of the window in a mansard roof in 1982 is a study in textures and skepticism. A pregnant woman dancing with her husband on the Quai Saint-Bernard more than 30 years later is an image of arresting, unforgettable carnality.
By the 1980s, Peter had begun to travel all over the world, taking the sensibility of the teenage boy in Fort Wayne and young apprentice of Paris to the combat zones of the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe. These would become some of the most famous Peter Turnley photographs, often appearing on the cover of Newsweek and other international magazines. But as they are presented here, without headlines or exclamations, they take on a different sort of life. One looks at them and then looks again: at the shadows across the face of Nelson Mandela the day after he is released from 27 years prison; at the grizzled, barefoot refugee from Rwanda sound asleep on a bed of volcanic rock, or the abstract, hellish image of cholera victims in a mass grave.
From the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 through the war in Iraq known as Desert Storm, then the mass exodus of the Kurds to freezing mountaintops, horrific starvation in Somalia, and the genocidal murder campaigns in Rwanda and Bosnia, only five years passed. Peter saw it all, and photographed it all, looking deeply into the eyes of the men, women and children caught up in the madness of man-made tectonic shifts that shattered the lives of millions.
Over the last decade, Peter has been searching, I think, for a place with a people among whom he could feel at peace, yet also find that excitement of discovery that drives any creative artist. And, clearly, that is just what he has found in Cuba. One street photograph after another captures the soul of the person in front of the lens and evokes the spirit of those people who are not: their sensuality, their love of life and color and of each other. In Cuba, Peter has found huge, rich reserves of the humanness that is central to his work, and to our experience of it.
We can only imagine what will come next.
This essay is reprinted from the catalog for Turnley’s retrospective, Momentos de la Condición Humana, which opens this week in Havana at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Edificio de Arte Cuban, and runs through February. His new book, Cuba: A Grace of Spirit, is available through his website at www.peterturnley.com.