Telegraph Magazine (UK) 2/2/02
Guy Bourdin's fashion photography was dark, theatrical and disturbing. While he was considered one of the coolest photographers of his time, he refused to have his work celebrated. Only now 10 years after his death, is an exhibition coming to Britain.
Guy Bourdin probably never meant for his photographs to be seen on magazine pages again. Throughout his career, spanning three decades, he created thousands of images for French Vogue and advertising campaigns and yet saved almost nothing for posterity. So even before his death of cancer in 1991, you could be forgiven for asking, 'Guy who?'
In the Sixties and Seventies, Guy Bourdin, was the coolest photographer in Paris then regarded as a cultural hotspot. But unlike his contemporaries, who revelled in their burgeoning rock-star status, he ducked away from the limelight and continually turned down offers to exhibit or compile a book of his photographs. It is only now, more than a decade after his death, that his son Samuel has managed to achieve what his father resisted for so long: a proper celebration of his genius. It started with a book, Exhibit A, which was published in November last year. Now there is an exhibition arriving this month in London.
The reason for the 10-year delay has nothing to do with complacency. That was how long it took for Samuel to salvage the remains of his father's chaotic estate, fighting claims from the French government (who pursued Guy for non-payment of taxes), Bourdin's ex-employers and his last mistress. Considering the obstacles, it is a wonder his pictures are making it to the gallery wall at all.
Although Bourdin worked as a fashion photographer, his pictures were never just about clothes. They were incidents, troubling scenes from movies never made. The women populating his images were characterized by their flawless pallor and make-up (originally inspired by Bourdin's mother) that resembles an over-zealous mortician, all livid pink blush and three-dimensional lipgloss. The clothes were almost incidental to the drama.
There is nothing straightforward about Bourdin's work. Emma Soames entered his orbit working for French Vogue in 1971 and found herself keeping track of two Andy Warhol models running amok outside the French Parliament in nothing but high heels. 'He caused havoc but we adored him,' she asserts. 'Working with him was a real adventure.' Such escapades could involve anything from transporting a reeking tuna halfway across France to complete one of Bourdin's scenarios, scouring Paris for a wall made of 'the right kind of bricks' to comply with his specific demands.
His models also required a healthy sense of adventure. 'It really went beyond being a pretty girl,' stylist Grace Coddington once commented. Bourdin tended to avoid professional models, as his one-time assistant Icaro Kosak recalls. 'He'd look at a girl and think, "Will she go all the way?" Not sexually, but "Will she hang from the ceiling with five bags of ice in her pockets?"
Guy's studio down the dingy Rue des Ecouffe in the Marais district of Paris was an ideal playing field for these games. A dungeon-like warehouse, it had no telephone and a toilet accessible only by walking along precarious wooden planks. When Kosak started working for Bourdin in 1975, Guy didn't speak to him directly for three months. Only when Kosak was about to topple off a stepladder screaming 'Help!' did Bourdin respond: 'Icar, a good assistant never asks for help.'
Kosak quickly realized that Bourdin's skill in the studio was as much psychological as it was technical: 'He would create a situation which forced three or four people who couldn't stand each other into a confined space for 12 hours, and observe how the whole thing would slowly, slowly out of hand.'
So keen was he on cultivating tensions between the assembled models, make-up artists, and fashion editors, he once suggested to Kosak that they line the walls of the tiny make-up room with copper mesh so not one spark of the electric atmosphere that built up could escape.
Bourdin was never one to shy away from life's dark side. For his first commission for Vogue, he photographed a model in a graceful net-veiled hat in front of a butcher's market stall - five-spectral looking calves' heads hanging from hooks above her, their five wan tongues lolling. He came to enjoy complete control over his Vogue pictures; the magazine's support for him became so unequivocal that reputedly staff would go into ecstasies over a Bourdin photograph before they had set eyes on it.
Joining the dots between his arresting pictures and his private life, Bourdin is often referred to as a misogynist puppet-master. The suicide of his second wife Sybille Dallmer, completes this sketchy image. Before her death Dallmer devoted herself to organizing Bourdin's business affairs so exclusively that by the end she rarely left the fifth floor apartment they shared. Following the tragedy, 'He surrounded himself with the wrong people. It was like tempting the devil,' Says Kosak, who remained a friend until Bourdin's death.
During his life Bourdin liked to get his own way. Once when he was refused entrance to a nightclub, he tore his clothes off and cried, 'If I can't get in then my clothes will!' With all this can-do energy channeled into his high-voltage images, it is no surprise that his photographs have survived him. Even against his will.
By Naomi West
The Times (UK) 6th Feb 2002
The Man with Ad extras
Guy Bourdin's erotic images of women broke taboos. A London exhibition shows why.
In the summer of 1975, leisured American ladies idly leafing through the May issue of Vogue got a nasty little shock. The magazine had published, amid huge controversy, a series of photographs that went beyond the prevailing feminine sexual taboos. Helmut Newton's Story of Ohh shows Lisa Taylor lounging on a sofa legs wide apart, gazing hungrly at a half-naked man. Debrorah Turbeville's Bath House series elicited thoughts of Auschwitz, lesbianism and drugs. And Guy Bourdin's advertisement for Charles Jourdan shoes showed the chalked outline of a woman on an apparently blood spattered pavement, her gorgeous red shoes and red sunglasses abandoned near where her body had fallen.
In the context of the relative innocence of the 1970s, the impact of those pictures was deeply and perversely shocking. But American Vogue was already way behind editions that were coming out in Europe where French Vogue under the daring editorship of Francine Crescent, had given Newton and Bourdin creative autonomy. The resulting escalating competition, fought between the two photographers on the battlefield of scandlous perverse sexuality, did much to forge the image of woman as it was to evolve over the rest of the century.
Unlike Newton, who never turned down the chance for publicity, Bourdin refused the offer of exhibitions and books and never gave interviews, remaining indefinable until his death in 1991. To him his work was about process and the delivery of of finished glossy images to the pages of fashion magazines. Once this was achieved he placed the prints and negatives in his archive, a series of shoe boxes and a collection of black bin liners squeezed behind the front door of his apartment; or he threw them away.
His name, as a result, is little known to the general public but there are many connoisseurs in the sheres of photography, art, advertising and fashion who greatly admire his work.
Last autumn an exhibiton of his work was shown for the first time in America, and now the first dedicated Bourdin show in Europe is opening at the Shine Gallery in London. It is a small exhibition 16 framed images and 7 more viewable pitches us headlong into the fantasy world of impossible glamour, pleasure and danger that he inhabited. These are mesmerisng , almost hallucinatory, images of highly burnished lustre, filled with intricate narratives as if they were some odd species of hieroglyphic novel. Looking at them you find yourself in the crucial point in the drama, in a recurring scenario of doors ajar, mirrors and hotel corridors in which plots are woven, truths exchanged and desires whispered.
Bourdin would go mad if a hair was out of place. He was a kind of Stanley Kubrick of photography, a crazy perfectionist genius capable of pushing his models to the brink. He once left a naked Ursula Andress for seven hours on a glass table while he went on a hunt to find some roses that perfectly complimented her skin.
While Beaton, Horst, Dahlwolfe and others had played with the props of surrealism, Bourdin was one of the first truely surrealist photographers, and he set his work in a caustic, parodic universe that was deeply personal and often intensely claustrophobic, usually involving body parts, stylised violence, allusions to paedophilia and death.
His image for Vogue Hommes, shot in 1997, is a formidably controlled narrative of looming threat. The back of a naked man is seen in the distance through a door washing at a basin, while in the foreground, a second man presumaably his lover, sits waiting fully dressed with a cluster of empty beer cans at his feet, crushed by his hand. he stare at a television screen broadcasting the frozen image of a clock. The image reeks of thinly veiled violence and plays on Bourdin's ever-present tension between desiring gazes and desirable bodies.
In another a red-haired model in pallid make-up and a red swimming costumes lies clinging in harsh blunt light on the back of a leaping dolphin. Her glossy hair hangs down over the dolphins hair, her white buttocks hover above its gleaming fin. Bourdin's use of super-saturated colour was ppart of the eritic charge of his photographs, and his frquent preference for dissonant reds set against pallid white skin gave his models that feeling of excess excess colour, excess violence, excess sex. Bourdin's phony, unnatural decadence set the the fashion tone for the rest of the century.
Guy Bourdin created many signature photographs of beautiful women doing back bends, displaying flawless physiques in vulnerable positions to be taken advantage of, if only voyeuristically. He was a fashion photographer who worked for French Vogue for over 30 years, from 1955 to 1987. Especially during the '70s, his work filled the pages of international fashion magazines. Generally, his muses wear stiletto heels, lots of lip gloss, and not-terribly-subtle stripes of blush on preternaturally high cheekbones. Bourdin tended toward the plastic, not the earthy, and clearly preferred the glamorous to the sensible. His models' gazes almost never meet the camera. His 1967 ad campaign for Charles Jourdan shoes breathed new life into the fetish-footwear market.
The perverse esthetecization of violence, however, is Bourdin's most distinctive calling card. He's known for depicting women tied up, compromised or dead. A black limousine with tinted windows is parked on a city street, the door ajar. A woman's leg dangles out. Mysterious fluid, possibly bodily, is on the sidewalk. Another photo shows a well-coifed woman in profile. A stream of shiny red fluid, obviously alluding to blood, spills from her mouth. It's graphically compelling. But that's only the tip of the iceberg.
Bourdin was clearly familiar with the adrenaline rush that comes the wicked, and also knows that the impulse to gawk at a disaster scene is a little kinky. We shouldn't look, but can't help yearn to. He gives us an image of little girls siting in a bed, their hair crimped, tricked out in Jon Benet Ramsey-style make up, providing a peephole to a world we want to see. It's not that his work condones violence and pedophilia. Rather, he exploits the fact that these things move us. He recognized that the things that turn us on are not always puritanical and politically correct. The niche Bourdin carved out for himself was truly on the cutting edge, exhilaratingly inappropriate and transgressive. Bourdin learned from the Surrealists, who inspired him: the bizarre fascinates us.
Bourdin also has humor, evidenced by my favorite photograph in the show, which depicts a woman collapsed to the floor, a schmaltzy gilt-framed painting of a ship at sea fallen off the wall and onto her head. It ridicules classiness (signified by played-out symbols of status such as art, the shapely legs of the model, and expensive-looking high-heeled shoes) and usurps tastefulness by being hip. The image is sexy, surprising and funny, all at the same time.
Much can be said of Bourdin's legacy. He blazed the trail for contemporary art heroes like Paul McCarthy and Matthew Barney, who mingle the disgusting and the sublime. He beat Jay MacInerny to the punch line of '80s-style decadence by a decade. Without Bourdin, one wonders whether or not we would have Steven Meisel's fabulous Versace ad campaign featuring pill-popping, blue eye shadow-wearing Hollywood housewives?o say nothing of Helmut Newton-style nudes. It's surprising that the first exhibition of Bourdin's work is happening only now, a decade after the photographer's death. For the pleasure, we can thank Samuel Bourdin, Guy's son, who has been trying to poshumously re-contextualize his father as a fine artist. The show, open through Oct. 20, is well worth seeing. It comes in conjunction with the publication of the first monograph of his work, Exhibit A: Guy Bourdin
Guy Bourdin Pace/Macgill.
New York, NY.
September 6 - October 20, 2001.
Pace/MacGill presents the first exhibition of fashion photographs by French artist Guy Bourdin (1928-1991) which coincides with the publication of Exhibit A: Guy Bourdin (Bulfinch Press), the first monograph on the artist's work.
Guy Bourdin's revolutionary fashion photographs first appeared in the pages of French Vogue in 1955. The impact of his ambiguous narratives, obscure compositions, and visionary treatment of space, color and sex immediately elevated fashion photography to a high art and became the defining look of the cultural milieu of the 1960s and 1970s.
Before now, these images existed solely on the pages of magazines and in the memories of legions of people continuously transfixed by Bourdin's work for the past forty-five years. The photographs, produced in collaboration with the artist's son, span from 1968 to 1980, providing an overview of the ingenious solutions the artist found to realize images. On view will be iconic, classic pictures for which he became revered, as well as unknown works from the artist's personal archives.
Once set to the task of depicting clothing, accessories or Charles Jourdan shoes, Bourdin used the objects he was charged with photographing and the parameters of the printed page to create otherworldly tableau. The photographs are filled with hints and allusions (a partially opened door, a darkened limousine, a woman tied to a pole) and offer very few visual clues. The viewer is left to fill in the blanks, a process which draws one into a psychological relationship with Bourdin and his imagery.
Guy Bourdin's fashion photographs had been neither exhibited nor published during his lifetime. With the current exhibition and the publication of Exhibit A: Guy Bourdin (Bulfinch Press), edited and designed by Samuel Bourdin and Fernando Delgado with a forward by Luc Sante and an essay by Michel Guerrin, Bourdin's legacy is finally available for close study.