Guy Bourdin: Image Maker


27 November 2014

“I remember being very young and coming across a book of beauty photography in a secondhand bookshop,” says Alistair O’Neill, a curator and fashion academic. "There was great work featured in the book, but it's Guy Bourdin’s photographs that I always remember; they were so startlingly different from anything else in that book. It just stuck with me.”

O’Neill’s relationship with French fashion photographer Guy Bourdin’s work is therefore personal. And this comes to the fore in his curation of Guy Bourdin: Image Maker, an exhibition which opens at Somerset House today. The largest retrospective of Bourdin’s work to date, the exhibition (which was co-curated by Shelly Verthime) features more than 100 editions of Bourdin’s most widely recognised editorial and advertorial photography alongside rarer, previously-unseen material such as contact sheets, films, paintings and polaroid tests.

Guy Bourdin (1928-1991) was active throughout the second half of the 20th century, photographing for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and commercial clients, always shooting in his distinctive, narrative-led style. His best-known work was heavily saturated with colour (although he also shot in black and white) and his photographs were often provocative and exotic, with a tendency to objectify his (almost exclusively) female subjects. Despite specialising in fashion advertorial, his images were rich in narrative in a manner that has since been taken on by contemporary photographers such as Tim Walker. In Bourdin’s work the product was always secondary to the image.

Bourdin began his career as an artist in Paris and it was during this time, in the early 1950s, that he met American artist Man Ray, who claimed Bourdin as his protégé. Soon afterwards, in 1955, Bourdin began working for Vogue Paris, which he shot for until 1987. Bourdin created campaigns for fashion brands such as Issey Miyake, Gianni Versace and Chanel, and also maintained a longstanding professional relationship with French shoe designer Charles Jourdan, whom he created advertorial campaigns for over 14 years.

It is a particular photographic series for Jourdan, the Walking Legs series, that proves a highlight of the Somerset House exhibition. An advertorial commissioned by Jourdan in 1979, it consists of 22 colour images featuring a pair of disembodied mannequin legs wearing a pair of Jourdan’s shoes, shot against various backdrops – a ferry port, a dilapidated bus, a front room fireplace. Until now the complete series has never been publicly exhibited, with only three images published as part of the original campaign.

Like much of Bourdin’s work, there is a rich narrative behind Walking Legs, which owes a debt to photographer Robert Frank’s The Americans, a 1958 photographic travelogue of the Unites States. “By the 1970s a lot of photographers who were inspired by Robert Frank, wanting to go on a road trip to take photographs, usually on Route 66 in the USA,” explains O’Neill.

“Bourdin took a different approach and decided that he wanted to take his partner, his son, his photographic assistant, a trunk full of Charles Jourdan shoes and a pair of mannequin feet in his black Cadillac over the English Channel into the UK. They spent the month of August in 1979 on a road trip. It was part holiday and part assignment.”

Whereas Bourdin’s Walking Legs series represents a polished example of Bourdin's work (embodying the surrealist tendencies that would see him repurpose imagery of models riding dolphins or laying “dead” in red nail varnish as advertising) the exhibition also explores the multifarious techniques adopted to create the perfected and glossy images Bourdin published in magazines.

Adjacent to the famous, finished imagery, the exhibition displays sketches, handwritten notes and a series of precise drawings, each detailing the technical intricacies behind each shot. “His preparatory works give us an insight into how Bourdin approached making images. It is not an instantaneous snap, it is carefully rehearsed and choreographed,” says O’Neill.

The exhibition concludes with a series of Polaroids, taken by Bourdin of the landscapes and nature that inspired his work. That Bourdin produced such a wide-ranging archive of polaroids is telling. “A lot of photographers then didn’t really value the Polaroid,” says O’Neill. “They were part of a process and would often just get discarded. Helmut Newton’s wife June used them as drink coasters.”

This personal vignette is a fitting close to an exhibition. “I think it [the gallery of Polaroids] is the most intimate way of connecting Bourdin with his process. These things were very close to him,” says O’Neill. “He pulled them out of the camera as well as taking the picture, he shook it in his hand waited for it to develop and he kept them for a long time. Contrary to some of the exhibition photographs that have only recently been printed, these are very intimately connected to the photographer.”