The other regular at Vogue was Helmut Newton and his largely black and white visions of the sometimes SM sexuality of haute bourgeoisie played out in well-appointed apartments, hotels and grand houses. On the other hand Bourdin's sensibility was much darker and in colour. His pictures were claustrophobic and alluded to violence, lesbianism, sadomasochism and death. Every month there was a competition between them pushing the sexuality in their work to the limits of what could be published by a fashion magazine. They respected and were interested in each other's work but were not friends. Guy was not really friends with people, according to Francine Crescent. He was very reserved and people had to be reserved with him also.
Bourdin did not look like a fashion photographer but like a peasant and had podgy little peasant's hands. He was a dark genius who expressed himself through the medium of fashion photography. He portrayed a dark side, but in Technicolor. His pictures are about the problems of desire and of connecting with women. The best of them trouble the viewer and linger on the mind. His work hints at narrative and has a cinematic quality - sometimes a Hitchcock feel.
Bourdin had a studio in the Marais district of Paris that was rundown and painted black with blacked out the windows. There was no office and no telephone and no way to reach the outside world. There he would build his sets and work at all hours of the day or night. The toilet was down in the cellar along a dark corridor and the models, who would be scared of rats and mice had to cross two wooden planks to get to it. This amused him. He had an impish persona and would play music and scamper back and forth and giggle in a corner. Bourdin would make a drawing and work towards it, then think of some other picture to do. He used a Hasselblad, an was one of the first to use an ultrawide 18mm lens on his 35mm Nikon. He favoured a deathly pallor to the skin and doll-like make-up of the face -he knew the shock value of images of death and glamour. He was difficult on himself and on others too. He wanted perfection. Perfect hair, perfect everything.
Outside of the studio, he loved to travel abroad but would go repeatedly to his native Normandy. He could transform a corner of the outside world into something extraordinary. He would use artificial light and eliminate the sky or reduce it to a thin sliver and the picture would be made claustrophobic. Bourdin walked everywhere and observed what was around him.
Bourdin's private life to was also dark. According to his half brother Michel, Guy, like their father was hard on women. They treated women as the servant of a man rather than as a companion. Their father kept a picture of his business in his wallet but not his family. The second Madame Bourdin was kept working in the business for three years without going out. Guy also had a similar relationship with his second wife Sybille Dallmer. Towards the end he would not let his wife work and she was trapped in a fifth floor apartment. Nobody would go up there and the phone would not be answered and he endeavoured to make sure she had no life outside of him. She looked after his accounts while he paid no attention to money. Once, when he was away in Normandy she hanged herself. She was found by the son of his first marriage, Samuel who lived with them. She had a lot of influence on choosing the locations and sets Guy was using. And she did the styling and decoration for most of Guy's photos in her time with him. His estranged wife Solange who he married in 1961, died . Some of his friends say of an overdose, others say cardiac arrest.
By the mid eighties Bourdin was in decline. Francine Crescent had left French Vogue in 1987 so he had no one championing his work and they began to refuse some of his pictures. He became more demanding and difficult to work with. Fashion photography was also moving towards a "naturalistic" style and away from the contrivances of the seventies and Bourdin's golden decade was behind him. He was also pursued by the French state for the non-payment of taxes and tormented by personal crises. He spent much of his time painting canvases that he never finished and eventually died of cancer 29th March 1991 age 62.
Bourdin often talked of exhibiting his work or producing a book, but he never did. Maybe he was trying to crystallise his work into some bright and shiny jewel before he could put it out, but that never happened. If today he has largely been forgotten and not as illustrious as his contemporary, Helmut Newton, it is because he wanted it that way. A lot of his work has been lost or deteriorated due to his bad storage. He refused to sell his work to collectors and did not like pictures of himself published. Bourdin even refused the Grand Prix National de la Photographie saying that it did not fit into his way of living or thinking. He strived to make his images as perfect as possible but once they were published they were dead to him. He had already moved on. It is as if he was more interested in the process of creation than the final image itself. He was a perfectionist and the curse of perfectionism is procrastination and ultimate dissatisfaction.
Now with the publication of the new book Exhibit A: Guy Bourdin, there will be a reassessment of his work and maybe he will finally get the recoginition and the place in photographic history he deserves. He was not just a master of fashion photography. He was also a master of constructed photography.
This is a 5,300 word article that appeared in New Yorker in November 1994.
Bourdin feature, February 2003