David Turner: In memoriam

Even if you haven’t met photographer David Turner, there’s a good chance you’ve seen his work. A veteran of the New York and Milan fashion scenes, Turner has a commanding presence. His well-earned confidence comes from knowing that he has captured the images of some of the brightest stars out there, as well as earned the trust and respect of some of the biggest names in fashion. “I’m very proud of that,” he says, “that I can keep those people happy.” When he entered the world of fashion photography in the 1980s, “It was the heyday of publishing,” he said. “I didn’t know that then.” People loved to buy big, glossy fashion magazines, and ad sales generated a massive amount of revenue. Now he teaches photography at RIT and takes pride in connecting aspiring photographers with incomparable opportunities.Turner grew up in Oklahoma, in a small town with a large penitentiary. His father owned the local newspaper, and as a teenager Turner was sent out to take pictures for the paper. He quickly learned “never to come back empty-handed” to the newsroom. “I understood peak moments,” even at a young age,” he says, and developed instincts for photography—he was good at capturing moments like the ball leaving the hand of a basketball player. His childhood piano lessons helped mold his mind and taught him that there is a rhythm to art: “Color, rhythm, form, texture.” Also, “the penitentiary was my beat,” he says. He had to get up close to prisoners to take their photos. “There was no zoom lens. These guys looked like they could eat me for lunch.” Working for the newspaper and focusing on the “who, what, when, where, how” solidified the idea of telling a story with a single image.


Turner thought he would be taking over the newspaper someday, and, at first, he attended college to prepare for that. But when his father unexpectedly sold the newspaper, Turner realized that his heart was really in photography. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Empire State College and then attended “a photo school in L.A. that no longer exists.” Near Hollywood, he learned how to create pictures that were sometimes cinematic, often using gels or smoke machines. He quickly became a trendsetter in terms of style. You have to “become the trend,” he says. He felt confident and skilled after he graduated. Wanting to work with the best in the business, he sold his El Camino and bought a one-way ticket to New York City. Once there, he worked as an assistant, then a studio manager. In 1985, Turner moved to Italy and started working as a fashion photographer right away. In Italy, he says, they loved young Americans, and he was an instant success. Linea fashion magazine put his name on every large, sumptuous photo. When he returned to New York with his Italian tear sheets, everyone wanted to work with him. He got an agent and started doing ads for Ralph Lauren, the biggest menswear designer in America. “If you remember seeing the New York Times back then, there were so many full-page photographs. It was really a pleasure to open the Times and see my full-page pictures.” Ralph Lauren himself was impressed with Turner and felt that Turner understood his vision. While there were several house photographers, Mr. Lauren preferred Turner’s work, and he remained on the Ralph Lauren team for fifteen years. In 1989, Turner began working with W magazine. That working relationship lasted twenty years, and the experience was “amazing.”

Turner thought he would be taking over the newspaper someday, and, at first, he attended college to prepare for that. But when his father unexpectedly sold the newspaper, Turner realized that his heart was really in photography. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Empire State College and then attended “a photo school in L.A. that no longer exists.” Near Hollywood, he learned how to create pictures that were sometimes cinematic, often using gels or smoke machines. He quickly became a trendsetter in terms of style. You have to “become the trend,” he says. He felt confident and skilled after he graduated. Wanting to work with the best in the business, he sold his El Camino and bought a one-way ticket to New York City. Once there, he worked as an assistant, then a studio manager. In 1985, Turner moved to Italy and started working as a fashion photographer right away. In Italy, he says, they loved young Americans, and he was an instant success. Linea fashion magazine put his name on every large, sumptuous photo. When he returned to New York with his Italian tear sheets, everyone wanted to work with him. He got an agent and started doing ads for Ralph Lauren, the biggest menswear designer in America. “If you remember seeing the New York Times back then, there were so many full-page photographs. It was really a pleasure to open the Times and see my full-page pictures.” Ralph Lauren himself was impressed with Turner and felt that Turner understood his vision. While there were several house photographers, Mr. Lauren preferred Turner’s work, and he remained on the Ralph Lauren team for fifteen years. In 1989, Turner began working with W magazine. That working relationship lasted twenty years, and the experience was “amazing.”

Turner feels that he’s been “lucky a lot.” He photographed Anna Wintour during her first year as the editor of Vogue. The portrait shows her looking as inscrutable as she always seemed, behind dark sunglasses. The person being photographed has to “look the part” of who they are, he says. Turner was once in South Carolina visiting businessman Richard Jenrette, who said he’d like Turner to take a picture with him and his houseguest who was coming. The houseguest turned out to be then-Prince Charles, who was on a business trip to discuss the importance of classical architecture with American architects. “To do a portrait of Prince Charles, you have to sign a packet of papers.” But the prince was friendly and warm, with a two-handed handshake—he had “older brother” energy, Turner says.

Turner moved to Rochester six years ago and enjoys living here—he feels that Rochester is “beautiful at night.” As a visiting lecturer at RIT, he teaches a wide range of photography courses and helps students network with alumni and industry professionals in New York City.

Turner is known as someone who can solve problems and get things done. He is adept not only with creativity but logistics and lighting as well—he’s ready with a Plan B if Plan A doesn’t work out, and he can often fulfill a client’s grand desires on a less than ideal budget. It’s all very precise, he says: which lights to choose, which lenses, which camera system. “I understood that formula, and alchemy, to make it look cool.” This is what he teaches his students: “You are in charge of all that alchemy.

(originally published July 2023)

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