Guy Bourdin’s characteristic style is probably the most imitated in the past 50 years. It looks very contemporary, probably due to the many photographers who have felt ‘inspired’ by his work. Yet, compared to Newton, Avedon and Klein, as with so many pioneers, Bourdin never became a household name, despite his photography leaving a strong imprint on our visual culture. Inspired by Magritte, Balthus and Buñuel, his pictures were the epitome of what the surrealists called ‘convulsive beauty’. His work was characterized by a severe style of formalism and solitude, a recurrent trope.
Influential and enigmatic, Bourdin was the very antithesis to today’s relentless self-promotion. He turned down the offer of solo exhibitions and books and never gave interviews. Once his images had been published, the negatives would be dumped behind his front door in boxes and black bin liners. Such was his desire for privacy that he refused to have his photograph on the Vogue credit page.
While initially wanting to be a fine artist, Bourdin had to conclude his work wasn’t good enough and he reluctantly chose photography as a medium instead. He met Man-Ray and managed to become his protégé. In 1954, after several exhibitions in Paris galleries, Bourdin showed his portfolio to Edmonde Charles-Roux at Vogue. Although it lacked commercial work, Charles-Roux thought the quality of his photos ‘exceptional’ and he managed to get his very first shoot, a hat story. Bourdin chose to set this at the meat market, juxtaposing the elegantly dressed models with calves’ heads hanging from hooks, their eyes closed and tongues lolling as if in revulsion at the bourgeois ladies coolly posing below. Appropriately titled Chapeau-Choc (Hat Shocker) this story caused a mini-scandal and a flurry of cancelled magazine subscriptions yet was the beginning of a 30 year long relationship with Vogue. Bourdin always tried to disrupt any potentially lazy showcasing of clothing by injecting an element of the unsettling; thus an elaborate flower-covered hat would be shot on a model who had flies and bees swarming all over her neck. His voyeuristic set-ups seduced the viewer with their suggestions of illicit sex and violence. Francine Crescent, also at Vogue, was a ferocious supporter of Bourdin’s work. She introduced Bourdin to Roland Jourdan, ensuring financial stability and a platform for Bourdin to explore his art both within Vogue editorials and through the medium of advertising campaigns.
His working style was characterized by shoots involving elaborate, self-built sets which took days to construct. Usually he would only do one shot a day, according to Nicolle Meyer, a former model.
The legend goes that to be a true artist you have to suffer and/or make others suffer. Bourdin’s background wasn’t great and is clearly an important part of the picture. Abandoned by his mother, he was adopted by his father’s parents. The only time he met his birth mother, an immaculately groomed woman with red hair, was when she turned up at his adoptive parent’s restaurant, the Brasserie Bourdin, and handed him a present. His sole contact with her was being forced to speak to her on the phone, locked into the restaurant’s cramped phone booth. Many of his images feature beautifully made up redheads – a coincidence or a desire to make a mother substitution bend to his will? Joan Juliet Buck, ex-editor of French Vogue and a former collaborator who was in charge of making up models’ faces with Leichner stage paint, remembers gradually feeling uncomfortable about the doll-like appearance of the models. ‘They began to look dead to me’, she recalls. Something else that introduced a certain vibe on shoots was Bourdin’s blacked-out, black painted studio with only an outdoor toilet, which you had to access by walking on planks over a rat-filled yard. And rather than using the big names of the day, he chose models based on ‘would she’? Not would she sleep with him, rather would she be the kind of woman you could get to pose hanging upside down, pockets full of slowly melting ice. On one occasion his vision was two women with skin made of black pearls. Models were covered first in glue from head to toe, then encased in jewels. As their skin couldn’t breathe, both blacked out. When told the models would eventually die under those conditions, he smiled and replied ‘beautiful’. Insert creepy voice-over… According to legend, his voice was high-pitched, whiny, despite Bourdin being short and stocky. He once said that the purest pictures were of someone dying or unconscious. In a way there’s an honesty to Bourdin’s work, because it is all so obvious in his images, you don’t have to probe for a hidden subtext.
At the age of 34 Bourdin married Solange Gèze. Six years later they had a son, Samuel, and subsequently became estranged.
In New York he became involved with Holly Warner, and a redheaded model named Eva Gschopf. Friends reported that the women who lived with him appeared trapped; unable to see people, never allowed access to a telephone. Maybe Bourdin wanted to make sure they could never leave him like his mother did.
Warner tried to kill herself by slashing her wrists, but survived and broke away from Bourdin. Gschopf died in a fall. Afterwards, Gschopf’s best friend Sybille Dallmer (also be a redhead) asked to meet Bourdin, and they became lovers. Shortly afterwards, Solange Gèze died – rumour had it was an overdose, some suggested it was a heart attack. This incident was supposedly used as inspiration for an image for the Charles Jourdan S/S75 campaign, that of a headless woman lying inert on a bed, a TV blaring at her side and a young boy silhouetted in the doorway. In 1981, the then 13-year-old Samuel came home to find Dallmer hanging from a rope in the stairway of their apartment.
The backstory makes us look at his work in a different way. Does the fact that he ‘merely’ acted out tableaux of his desires rather than kill women make it more justifiable? Do we, by liking these images, make the thought process behind them acceptable? Is it reasonable to jazz up commerce by exploiting a sophisticated staging of violence towards women? Was he trying to numb our sense of right and wrong by disguising malice as beautifully executed fashion imagery?
Guy Bourdin: Image Maker at Somerset House is the UK’s largest ever exhibition of Bourdin’s work, featuring over 100 colour exhibition prints, as well as early and late works in B & W that challenge Bourdin’s reputation as a colour photographer. Unique Polaroid test shots, double page spread layouts, contact sheets and transparencies marked for composition all explore Bourdin’s craftsmanship and the processes involved in producing startling and provocative imagery in a pre-digital age. It also shows Bourdin as a pioneer of fashion film, displaying a range of Super-8 films he made at the same time as his on-location photo shoots.
Included are a selection of paintings, working drawings, sketches and notebooks.
Guy Bourdin: Image-Maker promises to be the most in-depth and insightful exhibition staged since his death in 1991 and is a must-see.
Curator’s Talk: Guy Bourdin
Thursday, 11 December 2014, 19.00-20.00
Screening Room £12.00 (£10.00 concessions)
Guy Bourdin remains one of the most distinguished figures in twentieth-century fashion photography. His bold sense of pictorial design and uncompromising approach to his subject matter have left a remarkable legacy. His body of work is examined in Guy Bourdin: Image Maker, the most extensive UK survey of his work to date. In this lecture, curator Alistair O’Neill will examine Bourdin’s influence, not only within commercial fashion, but in the wider field of photography beyond.
Guy Bourdin: Image Maker
27 November 2014 – 15 March 2015
Words Anna Bang
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