Pete Turner, Photographer with an Eye for Color and an Ear For Jazz, Dies at 83

Sep 19, 2017

Pete Turner, a master photographer whose striking use of color and composition defined the visual aesthetic for some of the most iconic jazz albums of the 1960s and ‘70s, died on Sept. 18 at his home on Long Island, N.Y. He was 83.

The cause was cancer, his wife, Reine Turner, said.

Pete Turner with 'Push,' a photograph from 1970
Credit Courtesy of Pete Turner Studio

If you’re a jazz fan, you have probably spent some time contemplating a Pete Turner cover image. Running the spectrum from brooding portraits to surrealistic landscapes, they’re united by a strong graphic sensibility and a supersaturated color signature. Modern to the core, they’re also deeply musical, in a way that’s easier to feel than to describe.

“His images might seem abstract at first, but he always connected with what the title was suggesting, or the music was doing,” wrote Quincy Jones in the foreward to The Color of Jazz: Album Cover Photographs by Pete Turner, published by Rizzoli in 2006. Jones, a jazz composer-bandleader well before he became a pop producer, had a handful of his albums designed with Turner’s photographs, including The Quintessence, released on Impulse! in 1962.

Most of Turner’s work in jazz was thanks to a close affiliation with the record producer Creed Taylor. Among the albums stamped by their partnership were The Blues and the Abstract Truth, by Oliver Nelson (Impulse!, 1961); Night Train, by the Oscar Peterson Trio (Verve, 1963); and Straight Life, by Freddie Hubbard (CTI, 1970). Each has a defining look as well as a sound, and the same could be said for dozens of other albums from the period.

Turner had a celebrated career well beyond his album covers: he is recognized as a major figure in the field of color photography, working in a commercial medium with an artist’s touch. The American Society of Magazine Photographers recognized him with its Outstanding Achievement in Photography Award in 1981 — one of many awards he received over a career spanning half a century. His work is in the collections of a number of museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which acquired ‘Giraffe’ in 1967, just a few years after it was taken.

That same year, ‘Giraffe’ formed the visual basis for Wave, an Antonio Carlos Jobim album released on A&M Records. “When I saw Pete’s photo I instantly knew that this was the right graphic for the cover,” Taylor explained in The Color of Jazz, shrugging off the decision not to feature a more literal image, like a crashing wave.

Turner repurposed other photographs for album covers, sometimes to memorable effect. Milt Jackson’s Sunflower (1973) features an image of ostriches shot on assignment for South African Airways. Jim Hall’s Concierto (1975) depicts a Mayan statue he came across during a shoot in Colombia, tinted with a blue filter. 

And a 1967 detail of a gas station slot machine, titled ‘The Last American Indian,’ later became the cover image for Ron Carter’s album Blues Farm. (“How this image ties into Blues Farm beats the hell out of me,” Turner admitted.)

When he photographed musicians, Turner tried to steer clear of the standard conventions of jazz portraiture. He favored tight close-ups of musicians, often faces in profile, to avoid what he called “the old head-and-shoulders shot.” This approach can be seen on albums ranging from Stan Getz’s Focus (Verve, 1961) to Quincy Jones’ Gula Matari (1970).

Another example is John Coltrane’s Live at the Village Vanguard (Impulse!, 1961), which has Coltrane’s face depicted half in dark shadow and half in a moody red hue. You’d easily assume that the image was a performance shot from the Vanguard, but Turner staged it at Coltrane’s home. “I had no assistant then,” he recalled, “so it was just the two of us with the tools of our trade: his saxophone, and I was using a Rolleiflex. We worked together for about an hour.”

Donald Peter Turner was born on May 30, 1934 in Albany, N.Y. He was the only child of Ruth Turner and Donald Turner, who led a prominent 23-piece jazz orchestra in Montreal, and instilled a love of the music and its environs. “There were floor shows and acts to watch every night,” Turner recalled in The Color of Jazz. “I was fascinated by the shapes of the instruments and all the reflections you could see in them.”                                                                                            

After his family moved to Rochester, N.Y. in the mid-‘40s, Turner began taking pictures, in black and white and then color transparencies. He majored in photography and art at Rochester Institute of Technology, and was then was drafted into the Army. While serving with the second signal combat photography team in Long Island City, he had the chance to work with type-C color materials, and operate a military color lab.

Turner’s first published work was a Barnum and Bailey Circus spread for LOOK magazine, in 1958. He soon had assignments from magazines like Esquire, Sports Illustrated and National Geographic, as well as campaigns for the likes of Timex and Goodyear. He also dabbled in movie work, photographing Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton on the set of Cleopatra.

Jazz was always on the radar for Turner, and he noticed that a lot of his favorite new albums were produced by Creed Taylor. So he made an appointment with Taylor, bringing his slim portfolio. This led to his first album cover assignment — for The Sound of New York — A Music-Sound Portrait, released on ABC-Paramount in the late ‘50s.

“It was a picture of a traffic light and I had double exposed the red and the green and then the blue of dusk and the Empire State Building behind it, looking up,” Taylor recalled in Ashley Kahn’s The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. “It was a nice, moody New York City shot. [Creed] loved it. It was the beginning of a real long, productive relationship.”

Turner rarely heard the music on the albums for which he was shooting. Rather than a limitation, he saw this as an invitation to run free with his ideas: double exposures, intense color filtration, selective image blur. He also made full use of an LP gatefold, often spreading an image across both panels. “People are assaulted with visual distractions," he told Popular Photography in 2008. "My job is to intensify the experience of color for them.”

Along with his wife, Reine, Turner is survived by their son, Alex, and two granddaughters.  

Turner took inspiration wherever he found it, and the story of one of his most famous album covers is a case in point. Wes Montgomery, the great hard-bop guitarist, had made a crossover album for A&M called A Day in the Life, after the Beatles tune; it eventually reached the top of the Billboard jazz chart, breaking into the Top 20.

The cover image, depicting an ashtray full of spent cigarettes, was actually a still life from Turner’s apartment. “It had been a long night: my girlfriend and I had broken up,” Turner recalled. “I just saw those filtered butts with lipstick, and it summed up the way I felt.”