John Terence Turner
Lost photos of the golden era of skiing.
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the January 2013 issue of POWDER and can be purchased here.
The skier is turning left in the picture. A fantail of powder spreads to his right and another explodes behind his left pole—both clouds backlit and silhouetted by the sun. The light is sepia tone and casts a vivid shadow of the skier on the snow—arms akimbo, rooster hat cutting through the air, leather gloves, four-inch collar, hips counter-rotating against the turn.
This is a 1970s turn, a 1970s skier, a 1970s moment. Skinny skis, floppy boots, 60-inch poles, knit cuffs. This is the epoch just after Dick Barrymore’s film The Performers, about K2’s demonstration team, had just launched America’s only ski company into the limelight. Dick Bass had just cut the ribbon at Snowbird and the first issue of Powder magazine was sitting on newsstands. It was the beginning of a golden era in skiing, when resorts were full, the industry was flush, and skiing meant doing everything you weren’t supposed to. It was also an era when many of us learned to ski…and the photograph brings back visceral memories: snowmelt dripping down your back; the stagnant smell of a ski locker room; the white flash that followed face-planting into an icy groomer.
“Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt,” Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography. That melt is the passing of time. More precisely, the changing of time. Things look differently now than they did then. People ski differently. People act differently. But in the photograph everything remains the same.
Photographer John Terence Turner captured hundreds of iconic ski photos like this. He grew up a skier and became a photographer at the precise moment when skiing hit its apex in mainstream America. He palled around with Spider Sabich, Warren Miller, the Mahre brothers, and Dick Barrymore. He shot K2’s first wet T-shirt contests at The Boiler Room in Sun Valley and penned a story for Powder on Bobbie Burns when Burns was still teaching the “Burns Turn” and manufacturing The Ski. He shot Powder’s third cover and another classic for the cover of Skiing—the latter of which had just started giving out its annual Hotdogger of the Year Award.
Turner eventually moved on to become one of the most highly regarded stock photographers of his time, but he never stopped skiing. Even as he shot some of the most acclaimed commercial images of the 1980s and ’90s—for then-emerging Nike, Boeing, AT&T, and Apple computers, among others—he escaped every winter to the family cabin at Crystal Mountain, Washington, to teach his son to ski and line up at the chair for first tracks on a powder day.
Turner possessed a knack for ambient lighting and the ability to manipulate a scene so it, naturally, played out the way he wanted. His composition was so precise that, at times, it seemed that entire cities had been constructed for his shoots. He won Addy awards and was recognized by the New York Art Directors Society. But around the turn of the millennium, something changed.
The advent of digital photography yanked the rug out from under old-school film professionals like Turner, who relied on decades of experience to rise above the masses of amateur shooters. The flood of images—many of them subpar—that arrived with the digital revolution put major stock agencies out of business, along with the photographers who relied on them for income. Giants like Getty Images bought stock inventory for pennies on the dollar. They bought the Freelance Photographers Guild (FPG) that Turner had used for years and stopped paying him for two years. (While Getty “sorted out” their acquisition.) As the family’s savings dwindled, Turner’s stress level spiked and he started having health problems. Then, out of the blue, on a sunny Monday in Seattle, John Terence Turner stepped into his backyard and shot himself in the heart.
To this day, the loss is inexplicable. He left a wife and son he loved dearly and enough friends to fill his sister’s house at the memorial in Broadmoor, a gated neighborhood of Seattle. Amid the confusion and grieving, his photos were stored in his nephew’s basement. When Powder Managing Editor Mike Rogge learned of their existence last year, while researching a feature story on Sabich, we set about trying to locate them. This fall we finally did. The images within this story reveal what we found.
John Terence Turner was born in Boise, Idaho, and attended grade school and high school in nearby Ontario, Oregon. He learned to ski at Brundage Mountain and Bogus Basin, then moved west, where he finished high school at Seattle Prep and skied with his sister, Jody, at Snoqualmie and Stevens Pass. He was a natural athlete—a lifeguard, football player, and high-diver in high school—and dove headlong into skiing in the Cascades as a college student at Seattle University.
Turner headed to Sun Valley to ski bum and ski patrol after graduating, then signed on for a tour with the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic. He started his photography career there in earnest, photographing refugees, tuberculosis victims, and poverty on Hispaniola. He was a wunderkind at photography, too, and his photos were exhibited at the head Peace Corps offices and The National Press Club in Washington D.C. When he returned to Washington in 1968, he worked for the Humphrey-Muskie campaign as a photographer, then took a job as a ski photographer at Waterville Valley, New Hampshire. On the steps of the base lodge, he met the woman he would eventually marry.
“It’s one of those things where you meet somebody and you just know,” Lynda Turner says. “He had a handlebar mustache and a Stein Eriksen sweater on. He shook my hand and said, ‘Hi, I’m John Terence Turner, the staff photographer.’ And I just had this glaze-over and stood there shaking his hand. I fell in love with him, just like that.”
Lynda tells me the story from the couch in her apartment. The room is crowded with books, furniture, paintings, and everything else she brought from their old house. She is also a holdover from the 1960s—bright, fun, and as irreverent and beautiful as she was 41 years ago when she and John met. Over the years she’d carried his tripods, lights, and cameras. At home, he ran the business while she worked part time and raised their son.
Lynda puts a box of slides she’d found at her nephew’s house on the kitchen table and tells photographer Jordan Manley and I to look through them. When we get to the bottom of the box, we drive to her nephew’s house and pull eight more from a crawl space, taking them home and combing through them as well. The photos are from another era—medium format negatives, Kodachrome slides, 8 by 10 prints, black-and-white contact sheets. We sort slowly, watching a man’s life pass before our eyes: Turner as a youngster learning to jump at Bogus Basin; as an adult hanging out of a helicopter with his camera; in middle age with a giant lens and an even bigger headset.
Lynda tells stories as we browse. Turner was an Irishman who called beer, ale. (Unless it was Rainier, in which case it was Green Death.) Their son is named Michael Patrick and was actually born on St. Patrick’s Day. Turner liked Barbancourt rum, wore an apron when he cooked—which he did often—and went everywhere with their poodle, Louie. He was an intellectual, too, who read Yates and kept up on current events and was always good for a late-night philosophy tête-à-tête.
“He was a reader,” Lynda says. “He would read matchbook covers. He loved history, philosophy, geography. He had a degree in philosophy and political science.”
Turner always thought he’d be a photojournalist, she says. After they were married, he won a scholarship to earn his masters degree in photojournalism at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. The couple drove to New York City in their Datsun and lived for a year in a high-rise on 160th Street and Riverside Drive. Lynda managed a boutique near the school, and they rode the subway together back and forth. From the window of their apartment, they watched workers finish the last stages of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers.
When they returned to Seattle, they moved into a cabin on Vashon Island’s Quartermaster Harbor, and John worked as the Director of Advertising and Promotion at K2 Corporation. K2 was coming into its own then, and the American ski industry rallied around it. Barrymore and Burns always seemed to be around. When Sabich came to Vashon to meet with K2, he and Claudine Longet stayed in a bunk bed in the Turners’ cabin. Lynda had worked at the Ski Rack in Seattle before they were married, with her friend Laurie Kauffman, who would soon become Laurie Miller, Warren Miller’s wife.
Turner transitioned into commercial photography after parting ways with K2. He flew to the flanks of Mount McKinley in a snow plane to do a shoot for Roffe ski wear. He shot some of the first days of helicopter skiing and deep powder turns in the Cascades, Sun Valley, and Crested Butte. He also shot what would become Nike’s first—and most successful—ad campaigns. It was there that he began to master his art.
“John approached everything as an artist,” says Jake Moe, Powder co-founder who bought Turner’s cover shot of Burns. “His camera was a paintbrush. He knew exactly what shot he wanted to get every time.”
Turner’s nephew, Dan Evans Jr., worked for him as an assistant a few times and recalled the fine detail Turner’s eye picked up. He remembered a story when John was shooting a portrait of Bill Gates: “He noticed in the test shots Bill’s glasses were quite dirty, and he thought for a moment he should have them cleaned. He decided the dirty glasses were a part of Bill’s personality, who at that time was a young software geek who had just begun to make his mark on the world.”
Sometime in early 2000s, digital photography—and the copyright infringement and tidal wave of cheap images that came with it—swept through the photography world. “John was suddenly competing against 10,000 photographers who shoot a photo for $50 and e-mail it the same day,” says Moe. “He was totally crushed by technology and the new world order of photography. So much of his stuff was being stolen. That was his downfall.”
“Photography became a commodity right underneath our feet, and we never saw it coming,” his peer, photographer John Hodges, went on in an online memorial to John. “Every photographer I know at this very moment is struggling with this same issue. Everything we thought we knew, suddenly we did not. Everything we valued was suddenly worthless. Quality was replaced by commodity and all information was free.”
After the debacle with Getty, the Turners were broke. John started getting arthritis and gout, which only worsened with the financial stress. He financed their lives on credit cards for as long as he could, and then gave up. When Lynda found his body on May 24, 2010, he was two months shy of his 70th birthday.
There was another picture that stood out from the batch that day Jordan and I went through them. This one was a self-portrait, also vertical. John is sitting on a rock, holding his right knee and staring pensively into the forest. A headband holds his long, sandy hair back and it appears he’s holding a pipe to his mouth. He has the legs of a skier and hiking boots on. His right foot is wedged against a dead tree.
He took the photo when he was hiking alone. It is a self-portrait. There’s a look on his face that he is figuring something out. Or just has. Or maybe he just appreciated the moment and wanted to capture it on film.
He photographed a special time in skiing. The energy, artistry, and purity of his portfolio will never be recreated. The self-portrait is a photo of a man in a place where he felt most comfortable—with his camera, in the mountains. It’s a reminder of how things like skiing and photography can sweep away until you have no recollection of what life was like before them. It also reminded me of a quote by Ansel Adams:
“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.”
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