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David Turnley Retires from the University of Michigan

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, two World Press Photos of the Year, and the Robert Capa Award for Courage, David Turnley is recognized as one of the most renown documentary photographers in the world.

David Turnley Martagny France Exhibition 2

Turnley joined the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design faculty in January 2012, the same year that he released his critically acclaimed feature-length documentary Shenandoah. Prior to his time at the university, Turnley worked exclusively as a documentary photographer, documenting the fall of the Berlin Wall, the events of 9/11, and the human condition in more than 75 countries. 

For the past nine years, Turnley has imparted his knowledge and mentored the next generation of creative students at both the Stamps School and the Residential College. 

During his time at Stamps, Turnley led the International Experience course, Photographing Paris,” sharing his lifelong passion for and experience with photographing the City of Light. 

The description for Turnley’s Documentary Photography course invites students to learn to use photography to enter the lives of real people, to attempt to put themselves in their subject’s shoes, to tell their stories, and in doing so bear witness to humanity in each of our glorious complexities.”

During the 19 – 20 and 20 – 21 academic years, the work undertaken by students in Turnley’s Documentary Photography courses revealed poignant observations about the human condition during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I am extremely proud of the work that my students have produced, the inclusive evolution that I have witnessed in their world view sensibilities, and the respect they developed for the power of photography to bear witness and to make a difference,” Turnley said.

An alum of U‑M’s Residential College (French Literature, Class of 1977), Turnley calls his time teaching at the university one of the great honors of my life.”

I have so appreciated my colleagues and my students — and the incredible dialogue of exchange with a community that wakes up each day to try to make a difference with our art,” Turnley said.

David Turnley has been awarded the University of Michigan MLK Award for his work covering civil rights struggles around the world. The university community came together at the time of Nelson Mandela’s death to honor his life at the Duderstadt Gallery, where Turnley exhibited his work of the anti-apartheid revolutionary and President of South Africa.

According to Turnley, he documented Mandela’s life from the moment he walked out of prison in 1990 to the end of his life in 2013.” Turnley gifted the Stamps School with works from this exhibition, which now hang in the hallways of the Art & Architecture building.

In 2015, David Turnley presented as part of the Penny Stamps Speaker Series, delivering a lecture entitled We the People, a retrospective look at his life and career.

During the same year, Turnley was given unprecedented access to the U‑M football team. His mission: to document every aspect of coach Jim Harbaugh’s first season with the program. Three hundred of Turnley’s stunning black and white photos accompany Enthusiasm Unknown to Mankind, a 9,000 word essay by Harbaugh on his coaching and team building philosophies.

The essay and photos were published as a beautiful large format hardcover book in 2016. A follow-up book, Rise Again, was published in 2017. Each week over five seasons, a four minute montage of the photographs from these publications played on the megatrons on both ends of the Michigan Big House Stadium before each home game.

I am extremely proud of my collaboration with Coach Jim Harbaugh and the incredibly diverse community of student athletes,” Turnley said.

It was an honor to document the dreams, aspirations, and the love of the struggle and excellence that comes with playing big time college football at the University of Michigan.”

Reflecting on his career at Stamps, Turnley shares a story from his last semester of teaching Documentary Photography. During class, he asked his students to share with each other what they had learned together.

One of my students recited a list of takeaways that she had written, beginning her recitation with a quote from my teaching: When you embrace the privilege of entering someone’s life to tell their story as a documentary photographer, lead with intention and an open heart.’ I was tremendously moved and gratified by this,” Turnley said.

So many of my students have felt — and respect — the potential of documentary photography to make a difference in our world.”

The next phase of Turnley’s career sees him living and creating work in Paris.

I am currently working on a retrospective book of my photographing Paris over the last forty five years, and am as active as ever, as a daily working documentary photographer in a city that I love. I plan on being as busy as I have ever been at continuing to make photographs each day, and to publish, and exhibit my work that I have been making over the last five decades around the world, and to teach international photography workshops,” Turnley said.

Turnley’s advice for the next generation of artists and designers?

With awareness of the incredible power that art can have to touch people’s hearts and minds — and to be relevant in addressing important social movements and advocacy — I am a champion of encouraging all of us as artists, to strive on a daily basis, to be in touch with world events. Let us all strive to get to know people that may come from circumstances different from our own — and to always follow our hearts with our creative passions.”

Learn more about the life and work of David Turnley on his website and follow him on Instagram.