Unveiling Guy Bourdin
Guy Bourdin was the most groundbreaking fashion photographers who ever lived. In the creative circles, however, he is looked back upon as a legend. He was nothing short of an artist, one with the ability to slip between mediums, and bringing the compositions of a painter together with the aesthetics of a fashion creative under the discerning eye of a photographer; one who understood the true power of desire and intrigue. He used sex, mystery, and a particular brand of black humor to seduce the eye. He subverted convention, walked the line between beauty and the grotesque and broke all the pre-ordained fashion photography rules.
Some very clever individuals at the Somerset House in London share Creative Mapping’s persuasion that Guy Bourdin, may just be the most revolutionary fashion photographer who ever lived, one of the greatest, and his work deserved resurrection in Guy Bourdin: Image-Maker, the largest retrospective yet of the photographic giants’ forty year career. And the fact that Guy never published a book in his lifetime, rarely held an exhibition and his archives closely guarded makes the Somerset House retrospective all the more titillating.
Bourdin was–and is even after his death–the epitome rock and roll chic dosed with edgy, convention breaking creative talent. He is the essence of all things Creative Mapping in this way. And in Creative Mapping style, let us break Guy Bourdin down to his very Creative DNA so that you might understand the depth of his significance and truly call yourself a Guy groupie:
“Guy Bourdin was the closest thing to a fine art photographer that this business has produced” - Albert Watson
GUY BOURDIN DOES SOMERSET HOUSE
Over two decades after his death, Bourdin returns in his biggest retrospective ever at Somerset House in London. What makes this exhibition so special? Other than the fact that over 100 of his works ranging from photography to film will be exhibited, Somerset House will also be showing never before seen work from 1955 through 1987. When you first walk into Bourdin’s London exhibition, you feel as if you’re walking into a sea of body parts set against highly graphic pop-coloured backdrops. But what stands out most are the legs, the sheer quantity of legs. Bourdin had a thing for legs, a fetish you might even say. And in 1979, he was commission do shoot a campaign for footwear designer Charles Jourdan. Instead of using models, Bourdin dragged a pair of mannequin legs around the England in the back of cadillac and shot them in glamorous footwear against cliché English countryside backdrops. By removing the model and placing attention on the shoes, Bourdin is actually inverting the image, indulging in the mystery of the woman and probing such questions as, what does she look like? what is she thinking?
He created masterpieces of fine art from advertisements. One of the most striking aspects of the exhibition is that despite the range of work, they are deeply cohesive for a retrospective spanning over three decades of work. From vivid pops of red and green colour contrasts to graphic urban hyper-realistic spreads, his photographs reek of Bourdin and drip with his carefully curated vision of desire. While some refer to Bourdin’s photographs as erotic, they are in fact something far more elusive and complicated than pure sex appeal. They are ripe with the allure and intrigue of desire, and yet however naked, exposed and sexualized the models may appear, there is a noticeable detachment. The girls faces are painting with dramatic makeup; they rarely look directly at the viewer; there is even a jarring note of asexuality in how they are depicted. Through Guy’s eyes the women are rendered inhuman. In ode to his mentor Man Ray, Bourdin’s subjects have been dissected into limbs, segments of body parts, and have been manipulated into uncanny shapes. But Bourdin’s style, although Surrealistic, could not be more singular even from Man Ray’s. Bourdin’s vision for his photographs was carefully planned out; he was almost obsessive in his quest for perfection.
The world of the pre-established Guy Bourdin is enlightening when taken into consideration with the stylistic inclinations he later developed. Baby Bourdin was born in Paris in 1928 to a mother who left him behind as an infant. He carried this pain of abandonment with him throughout his life and his half brother Michel was later quoted as saying “he was hard with women” because of this. Guy was raised during wartime and a time where the philosophies of Surrealism permeated creative circles which sought to resolve the contradictions between reality and dreams. Bourdin spent his days sketching patrons in his father’s brasserie, and his later photographic work is undoubtedly the product of a strikingly surrealistic vision of the world. Bourdin was introduced to the camera during his military service in Dakar where he was trained as an aerial photographer by the French Air Force. When he returned to Paris in 1950, he hoped to open a wedding photography shop, but without the funds, he was forced to sell his cameras and took up a job at the Bon Marché cleaning after hours. The irony of his beginning isn’t lost to anyone familiar with the luxurious, high-end contents of this iconic Parisian department store. Bourdin’s upbringing during the war was a clear driving force in his thirst for luxury.
Bourdin admitted to two idols during his youth, Albert Watson and Man Ray. Upon learning that the American Surrealist photographer lived in Paris, the young Bourdin, then in his early twenties, apparently knocked on Man Ray’s door six times, and which was repeatedly shut in his face by his wife, until one time when May Ray himself finally answered and invited Bourdin in, after which, he became his prodigy.
“I will not say that Guy Bourdin has anything important to show us. I don't like elegies. All the same, I can tell you that Guy Bourdin is trying with all his heart to be more than a good photographer.” – Man Ray’s note to the gallerist of Bourdin’s first Rayograph exhibition in Paris
Bourdin’s approach to photography was as singular and precise as the creative processes of obsessive artists from Dalí to Hirst. His visions were meticulously planned, sketched out in his bursting notebook. He was a control freak on set, overseeing every aspect of the shoot from props to the model’s hair and makeup. He has the ego of an artistic director with the skillful eye of a photographer.
He was a bit of a mad man as well, but in the most fashionable sense of course. In her autobiography, Vogue Creative Director Grace Coddington recounts the time that Bourdin had a 19 year old model wrapped in plastic and wade into freezing water in an equally cold London studio. He poured enamel over the surface of the water and let his shutter click at wild speeds until his had his picture. The poor girl, who apparently had not been clued into what was happening to her, was not properly protected by the plastic and the enamel stuck to her body and remained glued to her for days after. Bourdin, is rumored to have reacted with pure delight for the sole reason that she wouldn’t be able to work with any other photographer during that time. In addition to be an unabashed control freak, Bourdin also had a penchant for the dark and the macabre. On one shoot, when he covered models’ bodies in glue and encrusted them in pearls, he unknowingly suffocated them, their skin unable to breath. When they finally fainted, the editor on set insisted he stop or else he would kill them, to which Bourdin replied, “Oh it would be beautiful, to have them dead in bed!” Originality, glamour and a grotesque and morbid beauty are the key ingredients of the Bourdin fantasy.
"There had been nothing like him in the history of fashion photography. Irving Penn's work is infused with respect for women. There's a sexual element in Avedon, though there is a lot else going on, too. But what you see in Bourdin is the linking of two great themes, desire and death. That's what makes the work so disturbing. It's as if he hijacked the medium for his own personal uses. He can be as suffocatingly intimate as Diane Arbus - you feel you have to come up for air.” – Philippe Garner, Senior Director at Sotheby's
“He was fashion’s most innovative voyeur. Then his work went out of style, and he was forgotten. Now a fittingly Bourdinesque revival is underway.” – Anthony Haden-Guest
Guy Bourdin was the king of subversion. His photographs revealed the thin line between death and desire. He was a surrealist creating under the constraints of fashion advertising. The result was revolutionary. His approach, never before seen by the fashion industry. For a stocking advertisement, he placed a model underneath a pink silk bedspread, only her butt cheeks and the tops of the stockings exposed; a pink stuffed elephant placed directly above her nude backside. He used intrigue to entice the viewer. He manipulated the ultimate tool of all, desire, to toy with our psyches, drawing us unto his highly graphic, dissonant world of luxury tinged with surrealist intent. Bourdin painted an ambivalent picture of women, and of everything else he photographed for that matter. His women were sexualized, empowered, objectified, and above all, fetishized. This is why he so pervasively adorned the pages of Vogue Paris. In the 1970’s Diane Vreeland was the Editor in Chief of Vogue US while Francine Crescent ruled Vogue’s French sister. Both women had very different approaches to attracting their female readers: Vreeland did so by bewitching and enticing the eye, Crescent, by provoking, enticing and shocking it. She and Bourdin were a heavenly duo. His photos were beautiful and shocking all at once. He created a surrealist ambiguity of the uncanny with every shot, while still retaining the veil of the advertisement. His photographs both seduced you and revolted you. One never knows precisely how to react while looking at a Bourdin. One of his most iconic images, that of a model lying naked on the floor, arms bent backwards at awkward angles, and a stream of red (nail polish? blood?) streaming from her nose. Her makeup is heavy, her cheeks stained with a nauseating shade of barbie pink and the red blood polish catches the light with a gruesome yet comforting reflection. Legs were fetishized above all. Legs hovered in photographs, their bodies severed by the edge of the frame. Legs were multiplied by mirrors and distorted by strange angles. He used the female body like his mentor Man Ray, but took it further. He blasted his images with color under the vain and magical light of the fashion industry. He mixed death and the grotesque with beauty, luxury and the unnattainble. Guy Bourdin was dark high fashion in it’s ultimate form.
Photography copyright: Charles Jourdan © Guy Bourdin Courtesy A+C – British Vogue – Nicolle Meyer – Pentax calendar – Vogue Paris – AAC