Obituary: Pete Turner, Master of Color Photography, 83

September 19, 2017

© Pete Turner/courtesy of Pete Turner Studio

"Giraffe," by Pete Turner, 1964. The Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired the image in 1967.

Photographer Pete Turner, who created richly colored imagery for National Geographic, Look, Sports Illustrated, Esquire, Seagrams, AT&T, United and other clients, died September 18 at his home on Long Island, New York, according to his wife, Reine Turner. He was 83.

The recipient of more than 300 awards from advertising and design associations, Turner was given the Outstanding Achievement in Photography Award by American Society of Magazine Photographers in 1981. In 2000, PDN readers voted him one of the 20 most influential living photographers. Photographer Eric Meola, who had assisted Turner before launching his own photography career, told PDN at the time, “Before Pete, there was nothing modern about photography. The first time I saw one of his photographs, it hit me as though I had been struck by lightning, and with almost as much voltage.”

Born in Albany, New York, in 1934, Turner began printing black-and-white photos at the age of 11, and at 14 began experimenting with printing color transparencies. He graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology in 1956. Drafted into the Army, he operated a military photo lab where, relying on advice from his old teachers, he processed new type-C color materials.

Look published his first story in 1958, and the following year National Geographic sent him on a seven-month assignment following a caravan of Airstreams across Africa. It began a lifelong interest in photographing the continent.

He began shooting advertising in the 1960s. Among his most iconic advertising shots was one created for Benson & Hedges, showing the end of a cigarette stuck in the doors of an elevator. Working for A&M art director Bob Ciano and producer Creed Taylor, he photographed numerous jazz and pop albums in the 1960s and 1970s, including albums by Stan Getz, Wes Montgomery, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Steely Dan. George Eastman House exhibited his album cover art in 2006. He also shot stills on the sets of movies, including Cleopatra and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

In the late 1960s, he began shooting conceptual, more abstract photographs. He also began making copystand duplications of his color transparencies and, in the process, devised ways to manipulate their hue and saturation to sometimes startling effect. “Giraffe,” an image he took in 1964, was an example of his new direction and his use of primary colors—which was unusual at the time.

“Nobody was using primary color photos,” he told PDN in an interview in the late 1990s, “and the ‘Giraffe’ is a combination of magenta and red, a very powerful image that manipulated color far beyond what color photographers were thinking they could do at the time.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired the photo in 1967.

In 1977, Turner and his wife opened The Space Gallery, with photographers Ernst Haas and Jay Maisel, to promote color photography as an art form.

In the early 1990s, he moved Pete Turner Studio from New York City to Long Island. He also spent more time traveling for personal projects, photographing in Namibia, South Africa, Greece and Chile. He told PDN, “I think that it is important to grow in photography: You have to have a goal, and yet you have to stay constantly open to new experiences. And then, of course, sometimes you get lucky, too–and things just happen.”

His books include Pete Turner: Photographs (1987), Pete Turner African Journey (with a foreword by Gordon Parks, 2000), and The Color of Jazz (2006). His work is in the permanent collections of George Eastman House, International Center of Photography, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other museums.

He is survived by his wife, their son, Alexander, and two grandchildren.

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