Guy Bourdin: Image Maker at Somerset House London
27 Nov 2014 – 15 March 2015
The UK’s largest ever exhibition of the influential and enigmatic fashion photographer Guy Bourdin, featuring over 100 works and previously unseen material from the photographer’s estate, from 1955 to 1987. This major show charts Bourdin’s distinguished 40-year career from Man Ray’s protégé to photography revolutionary in his own right and explore his pursuit of perfection.
Bourdin created impossible images long before photoshop
Some of Bourdin’s best-known pictures feature mannequin legs sawn off just below the knee. Those legs, says O’Neill, were “so brilliantly placed you can almost see the whole woman – the sense of her was so strong”. Though viewers often assume that post-production trickery was at play, usually the images were created by Bourdin drilling the mannequin’s feet through the ground then positioning them. In fact, he was meticulous in planning his photographs – sketching out the composition and scouting locations in advance – and yet “he made it look so effortless. Today photographers can very easily make a model fly but when they do it it doesn’t have the same charge or aura.”
Many of his most famous photographs were taken on a road trip around Britain
Those surreal mannequin leg images were part of a campaign of shoe advertisements by designer Charles Jourdan, for which Bourdin – with his partner and son – drove around Britain in a black Cadillac with a Shell travel guide. As Jess Cartner-Morley pointed out, the Britain they discovered was all “bus stops and seagulls” – a far cry from the louche world of Paris Vogue, and many of the photographs were taken in the B&Bs they stayed in while travelling between places like Brighton and Hadrian’s Wall.
He ably employed the ‘Macguffin’
Bourdin’s pictures told stories, albeit fragmented, troubling ones. “He knows what to leave out,” said O’Neill, “so you’re left wondering what is happening – or what might happen in a moment, almost like a film still.” Like the French new wave directors who were his contemporaries, Bourdin loved Hitchcock and was fascinated by Hitchcock’s concept of the “Macguffin”– an inanimate, often unexplained object that catalyses a thriller’s plot. In Bourdin’s world, that could be a giant yellow high-heeled shoe plonked ominously in a hotel corridor, dwarfing the men’s black brogues waiting to be polished.
Bourdin has been accused of misogyny – but O’Neill believes his work was shocking for more complex reasons
“You have to think about what was happening at the time, particularly at Paris Vogue,” said O’Neill. “There was a great deal of experimentation with image-making. After the vitality and permissiveness of 1960s in the 1970s there was more exploration of darker, stranger themes.” Bourdin and his contemporaries (notably his “great partner in crime” Helmut Newton and Deborah Turbeville) were not “proposing those images as mirrors on reality but proposing that a double page fashion spread is a dream and sometimes those dreams can become a nightmare”. Bourdin knew, said O’Neill, “that people read fashion mags in a detached way – flick, flick, flick – and he was really interested in stopping them from turning the pages”.
The pictures were troubling – but they shifted product
Though actual shoes are often the last thing you see in Bourdin’s photographs for Charles Jourdan, the company credits those advertisements for a turnaround in its fortune, according to O’Neill. Now, he said, shoe designers take inspiration from Bourdin constantly in their advertisements: “Look at Louboutin,” he said, “who riffs on Bourdin time after time.”
O’Neill and Cartner-Morley were speaking at a Guardian Membership event. The next fashion event will comprise a screening of fashion documentary Dior &I along with an interview with director Frédéric Tcheng on 19 March
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010