Today sees the opening of a major retrospective of the work of Guy Bourdin, one of the most influential fashion photographers of the 20th century. Along with Helmut Newton, he pushed the boundaries of what we consider beautiful and desirable. Drawing his inspiration from surrealism, Alfred Hitchcock and his upbringing in Normandy, which he coupled with a hefty dose of sexual under-, and quite often, overtones, he produced some of the most visually arresting and iconic fashion imagery in history.
The Somerset House exhibition has , in collaboration with the late photographer’s estate, accessed the vast archives of a very prolific mind, showing , alongside the very famous works, those that were never published. We also see his paintings – not many know that before beginning his career as a commercial photographer in the late 50’s, Bourdin was already a respected painter (which of course influenced his later output).
Bourdin has turned the boring job of shooting accessories into an art form
The show opens with a series of pictures he took on an assignment for Charles Jourdan in the summer of 1979; the collaboration between the photographer and the French shoemaker, which lasted for decades, was known for its unorthodox take on advertising. For that very project, Bourdin decided to skip using models altogether – instead, shooting the shoes on a pair of mannequin legs, which he drove around Britain for a whole month, taking his partner Sybille, son and photo assistant along for the ride. A car, a suitcase full of shoes and a month long road trip? Not exactly the way the big campaigns are shot these days, but Bourdin didn’t need a massive team (and budgets) to produce the resulting series of superbly staged and polished pictures. The disembodied limbs in fancy heels and boots, walking through English rose gardens or on a pier, are the perfect example of his usual brand of a classically composed image that, distorted somehow, evokes a sense of eery terror.
Further exploration reveals his work at large, from the spreads he realised for Paris Vogue in the 70’s and 80’s (in an agreement that was as unheard of back then as it is now, he had complete freedom in deciding his own layouts and final images), through further work with Charles Jourdan and unpublished shoots, but also highlights interesting aspects of his career in a way that’s completely organic and free-flowing. We can witness both the pre-production stage – quite often, he drew his composition with attention to such details as the pose and outfit before actually shooting it – and the final stage, with photos overlaid with tracing paper and instructions on how to crop them. A charming reminder of the days before Photoshop arrived with its magic wand tool.
Shoe shopping turned extreme: the photographer loved to pair his two favourite obsessions, sex and death
But even more interesting are his fashion films – Bourdin was a pioneer in that field, filming his set alongside taking photos on some of his most famous editorials. Never before exhibited, they offer a glimpse into the very process of creating the now near-mythical imagery. As opposed to the often static, carefully staged and immobile glamazons and troubled femme fatales that we know from the final product, they show the models playing with each other, laughing before carefully freezing into the right position in front of the camera.
As the biggest ever staged exhibition of his work, there are many more highlights – in fact, it’s one of those rare displays where the sheer volume of work, all equally amazing, is almost too hard to process in one viewing – so we’re already preparing to pay another visit. Strongly recommended for both fashion photography enthusiasts in general as well as Guy Bourdin obsessives – neither will be disappointed.
Guy Bourdin: Image Maker opens today and runs till 15th of March, open daily 10am-6pm (9pm Thursdays), tickets £9 (£7 concessions).
Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 1LA