Peter Turnley is a renowned photojournalist, who has, for more than four decades, created an enduring legacy of memorable images that reveal the depth and pathos of our common human experience and history. Turnley has photographed monumental moments of historic change and revolution including the Gulf War, Iraq, Kosovo, Bosnia, Chechnya, the fall of the Berlin Wall, revolutions in Eastern Europe, Tiananmen Square, the release of Nelson Mandela, the end of apartheid in South Africa, and many world leaders including President Barack Obama.
In his new book “French Kiss – A Love Letter to Paris,” he reveals moments of poetry and beauty he witnessed as a street photographer during the past 40 years of documenting the city of love, which is his adopted home.
Q: Hi Peter, how did you get started with photography?
A: I was sixteen years old. I had a serious injury from playing high school football. While I was in the hospital for a while, my parents brought me a book with photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson. I don’t even know how they had the good sense to even know who he was. As I laid in the hospital and looked at this gentleman’s photos, I was blown away by the way in which his vision informed me that there was all this poetry and marvel in the moments of daily life that I was walking by every day without noticing. So, I bought a camera and, thanks to my injury, I had a lot of time after school. I began to drive down to the inner city of my hometown in Ft. Wayne, Indiana every night, and I discovered immediately that the camera offered me a way to speak. It became a passport and allowed me to go anywhere. My life really began to open up. I visited people’s homes, gospel churches, taverns, and pool halls, and I developed all the negatives myself in my parents’ basement. I’ll never forget, when I came up and showed a wet print to my family sitting around the kitchen table after dinner, and remembering the look in their eyes as I shared something that I had seen.
Q: What does photography mean to you?
A: Since the very beginning of my photography, it essentially has always been about sharing; sharing my observations, perceptions and feelings about the world around me with others. I am truly convinced that, implicit in the notion of sharing, there’s also the notion of love. Photography has accompanied my life since I was sixteen years old. It has enabled me to travel now to over 90 countries all over the world and to encounter so many amazing and wonderful people, whose stories have brought so much to my life. Photography has offered me a chance to keep my eyes and heart open, and to notice the poetry of life that otherwise goes unnoticed.
Q: Which photographic idols have inspired you?
A: I was very inspired early on by the photography of many humanistic photographs, such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Édouard Boubat, André Kertész, Dorothea Lange and Robert Frank. And I was also extremely touched by the notion of the exhibition “Family of Man.” It’s a notion that no matter what makes us different around the world – geography, ethnicity, religion, etc. – the things that we all have in common are greater than what makes us different. And that was also a driving force for me pretty much from very early on.
Q: Why did you choose Paris for this long-term body of work?
A: At the age of nineteen, I decided to leave college temporarily and go to Paris. I wanted to discover the world that was reflected in so many photos of my photographic heroes. When I landed for the first time in Paris in 1975, literally everything was of moving importance for me. The French language was like music to my ears. So many notions of history came to life, and were meaningful to me. It was a time of a very vigorous debate of different intellectual ideas. For me, just everything was so fascinating and so I immediately developed a very deep love and passion for the city and for the poetry and beauty of daily life in Paris.
Q: How did you discover that photography could become your profession?
A: Early on, photography gave me a voice and a means to express myself. I always thought that vision is largely a function of what we understand about the world and life. I pursued a university education with studies in sociology, political science, world history, economics, and languages. I’ve always felt that photography is all about having something to say. I decided that instead of studying photography, it would be so much more beneficial to learn as many things about the world as possible. So, from my early beginning on, it was my idea to use photography to affirm things that are beautiful, yet also question what could be better, and how the world could be a more just place.
Q: How did your career then start and take off?
A: From an early age I decided that I wanted to meet the people who were my heroes, whose soul and vision touched me deeply. So, I visited a famous photo lab in Paris, Picto, where Cartier-Bresson’s films were developed, and his photos were printed. I immediately felt that I wanted to be a part of that. Though I’d never studied photography, I was certain that I could learn so much working there. So, I started to work in this famous lab of black-and-white printing, while pursuing a graduate degree in political science in Paris. I saw Cartier-Bresson on a weekly basis come to the lab to inspect and sign his prints. From that moment on, the gesture of signing a print became, for me, the summit of the photographic act.
A big turning point came for me when I met Robert Doisneau, after I graduated from Sciences Po in Paris. I simply called him, and asked him whether I could meet him. After chatting about my background and studies, I finally showed him my portfolio of Paris photos. He asked me two questions: “Would you like to become my assistant?” and “Do you want me to introduce you to my director of my photo agency Rapho?” Of course, I said yes to both things. From that moment on, I went to Doisneau’s atelier on a daily basis and, little by little, started to work as a professional photographer. I began to get assignments for great publications like The New York Times, Time, Newsweek and many French publications.
Q: You traveled around the world during your eventful career. Why and how did you maintain your strong emotional link to Paris?
A: I’ve covered pretty much every major event of human change in the last 30 years. My life in photography always had one constant, though. While I traveled the world to places where big geopolitical change and moments of history were taking place, I always returned to Paris, my adopted home. Returning to Paris was not an accident. Paris has offered me an incredible balance. When I am in Paris, I am constantly reminded how wonderful, beautiful, and poetic life can be.
Q: Have you ever been interested in documenting the bad or negative sides of Paris?
A: I have, for 40 years now, photographed most aspects and realities of Parisian life. I am not only fascinated with the beauty of the city, but the whole spectrum of life experience there. I’ve been extremely stimulated by the history of this country, its diversity, and also the vigorous social and political debates and challenges that take place. Paris is a world capital with challenges similar to many big cities, and some of its own issues to confront. Aside from these evolving realities of life in Paris, there is one constant theme ever present. There are likely more public scenes of love, romance, and tender affection to see in Paris than in any other city in the world, and these scenes have always inspired in me an awareness of how beautiful life can be. These scenes are very much present and timeless. Paris is the city of love.
Q: What’s your approach when taking pictures?
A: I’ve been always very fascinated by the notion of the decisive moment. And I always follow the advice of my very close friend, the great French photographer Édouard Boubat, who whispered in my ear over a drink of wine one afternoon, “If you keep your head up, eyes and heart open, there is a gift waiting for you at the corner of every street.”
Q: What can people expect from your book “French Kiss – A Love Letter to Paris?”
A: My book is a tribute to all of the wonderful moments of human interaction, romance, beauty, love, and hope that I have witnessed and been inspired by in this city over the past 40 years. Photography is ultimately about sharing, and I look forward to sharing with the world many moments of the heart that have touched my own, in this most beautiful city, Paris.
Thank you for your time, Peter!
– Leica Internet Team