“What have I done wrong? Nothing, I think. I am steadily surprised that there are so many photographers that reject manipulating reality as if that was wrong. Change reality! If you don’t find it, invent it!” – Pete Turner

Pete Turner was, arguably, the pioneer of color photography, especially in the fields of commercial and fine art. He began his fascination with color photography at age 14 when he started making his own color prints. Of photography, Turner said in a 2006 Photo District News interview:

“I love black and white photography, but somehow I got seduced by color, I remember going to the art supply store as a kid and looking at watercolor paint boxes and thinking, ‘These are beautiful.'”

Education and service

Pete Turner attended one of the most renowned schools of photography, the Rochester Institute of Technology. After graduation, he was drafted into the Army. His primary posting was at a combat photography center in Astoria, Queens. There, he ran the photo lab and experimented with innovative forms of color printing. Some assignments during this time included photographing rockets in Florida. On weekends he explored Manhattan with his camera.

Africa and the movies

Pete Turner in the 60s by Reine Turner
Photo: Reine Turner

Upon being discharged from the service, Turner embarked on a journey through Africa for the Airstream Trailer Company. As part of a 43 vehicle caravan, he traveled from South Africa to Egypt making photographs. The result was a portfolio of vivid color images that earned him assignments from Esquire, Holiday, Look and Sports Illustrated magazines, advertising work and photographing on motion picture sets. He worked on “Cleopatra” and “Night of the Iguana.”

While on another assignment in Amboseli, Kenya, Turner photographed a single giraffe running across a field in front of him. The animal’s neck extended above the horizon line from shoulders to the tips of its horns. Turner turned it into a silhouette against a blood red sky on a purple foreground by duplicating the original using color filters in his lab.


Pete Turner found himself in Iceland for Esquire magazine in 1973, the only photographer on the island of Heimaey where he produced iconic imagery of the Helgafell volcano eruption. That night was endured in an abandoned house where lava bombs hitting its roof kept him awake.

Record albums

While still in the Army, Turner began his relationship with record producer Creed Taylor. It began with Turner’s fascination with album cover art he discovered going through the bins in record stores in New York. Not long after, Turner and Taylor were working together. Turner photographed recording artists — Count Basie, John Coltrane and Wes Montgomery were a few of them. Taylor licensed Turner’s work for the cover of albums.

The giraffe photo was the cover of “Wave” by Brazillian musician Antonio Carlos Jobim. Turner searched his portfolio for an appropriate image for the new album “Trust in Me” by Soul Flutes. When nothing emerged, his suggestion to Taylor was to find an African-American woman with great lips then paint them red for the photo. Taylor loved it. More than 80 album covers photographs are in the book “The Color of Jazz” from 2006.

On color and nature

“I’ve always been drawn to the colors of nature, and nature is a wonderful teacher. Look at the color coding of a bee — yellow and black stripes — or of a cardinal with different shades of red. It is rare that nature is in color harmony. Go out there and look. Although a lot of my pictures are not taken from nature, I use nature as a color source.”

Pete Turner died from cancer at his home in Long Island in Wainscott, NY. He was 83. His career in photography coved six decades.

Most of this article was referenced from the New York Times obituary of Pete Turner.

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