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The University Magazine

Legends of the lens

University Magazine - Winter 2009 Image

Madison Avenue, 1958 from Pete Turner’s Discoveries series

Pete Turner ’56: Living color

Pete Turner’s past caught up with him recently.

“It’s crazy,” says Turner ’56 (photography). “I discovered a treasure trove of work I had done when I was in the Army.”

Back in 1957-58, the young draftee was assigned to the Army Pictorial Lab in Long Island City, N.Y., where he was given the run of a “pristine, huge, beautiful lab” and unlimited supplies for making the new Type C color prints.

Turner took full advantage of the facilities as well as the proximity to New York City, shooting everything that captured his imagination. Also about that time, on the recommendation of his former RIT professor, Robert Bagby, Turner connected with the Freelance Photographers Guild.

“They liked my work and started selling my pictures – for big bucks, I might add,” says Turner.

Getty Images recently acquired the Freelance Photographers Guild collection and returned original negatives to their creators. “I got this mint set of pictures back,” says Turner. He began scanning and digitally adjusting the old images, many of which are now featured on his Web site ( in a gallery titled Discoveries.

They are as vibrant and arresting as his photos from the succeeding decades, distinctive work that carried Turner to the top of his profession. Turner’s photos have appeared in popular magazines including Holiday, Look, Esquire, Sports Illustrated and National Geographic. He provided cover images for more than 80 LP record albums by John Coltrane, Bill Evans, George Benson, Quincy Jones, Paul Desmond, Stan Getz and others. His advertising assignments included work for ESSO, Goodyear, Timex and De Beers. He’s been the still photographer on the sets of numerous movies, including Cleopatra with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in 1962 and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1978.

Turner’s photos have been featured in numerous shows at venues including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Rochester’s George Eastman House and his work is included in the permanent collections of museums worldwide. He has received more than 300 awards from design and photography groups, including the Professional Photographer of the Year Award from Photoimaging Manufacturers and Distributors Association (PMDA). Several books of his photos have been published, including African Journey (Graphis, 2001), featuring works from trips over four decades, and The Color of Jazz (Rizzoli, 2006), a collection of his album covers.

Bold, saturated – even unnatural – color has been Turner’s hallmark from the very beginning. He’s never been afraid to push the limits, fi rst in the darkroom and now with the latest digital equipment.

Inspired by surrealist painters Yves Tanguy and Giorgio de Chirico, Turner began exploring conceptual, abstract ideas from the earliest days of his career. But even before his stint in the Army’s Type C lab, Turner was attracted to color photography.

“At RIT, I was kind of an oddball guy because I liked color,” he says. “I don’t know why, but I just loved color.”

Among many notable teachers in the School of Photography at the time were Ralph Hattersley (“an idea factory”) and Minor White (“We were all humbled by him”). Les Stroebel ’42 gave students a solid technical background in black and white photography.

“I liked them all,” he says. Turner’s favorite was Robert Bagby, who had been a successful commercial photographer in New York City. “What I liked about Robert is that he kind of laughed at the instruction manual. He let me experiment. He liked to go out and shoot, and he’d invite me along. You can learn a lot by watching your teachers actually work.”

University Magazine - Winter 2009 Image

To learn more about Pete Turner and his work, visit

He recalls his years at RIT as “a wonderful time,” but it almost didn’t happen. Turner spent four years at Aquinas Institute in Rochester with “a camera in my hands all the time,” but RIT rejected him. “My grades were terrible,” he admits.

Turner took his case to C.B. Neblette, head of the School of Photography. “He gave me a chance. Boy, was I excited because all I wanted to do was photography. After that, my grades were never a problem.”

He can’t imagine a different path. “With photography, you never know what will happen. You never know where it will take you.”

Kathy Lindsley