Sexually charged, often subversive and always meticulously composed; although Guy Bourdin’s name might not be familiar his images probably are. During the 1970s, Bourdin shot provocative, bold fashion editorials for Vogue Paris, encouraged by the then-editor Francine Crescent who was more interested in the visual representation of ‘fashion’ than commerce. She practically gave Bourdin (and his contemporary Helmut Newton) free rein to create without limits: the resultant images would shape the narrative – and understanding – of fashion for decades to come.
Bourdin, born in France, taught himself to draw and paint whilst staying with art dealer Lucien Henry but it wasn’t until WWII that he was introduced to photography. Returning to Paris after the war, her was tutored by Man Ray, who Surrealist leanings were reinterpreted by Bourdin in unexpected ways. The largely European (mostly French) slant of his inspiration is important. Bourdin might’ve depicted ‘strong’ women, but they were almost always coquettish rather than powerful, playful rather than domineering. As Colin McDowell observes, although Bourdin worked during an era when feminism was beginning to make its mark, France lagged behind the discussion about what, who and how ‘modern’ women should be.
Arguably it was his work for French shoe brand Charles Jourdan (the two had a long-term working relationship which lasted from 1967 to 1981) that bought initial critical and popular acclaim. Bourdin’s advertising images featured strategically placed cut-off mannequin legs that hinted at a presence but did not require it. Although ‘the woman’ was very much out of the picture, Bourdin was beginning to construct a female identity that would carry through the rest of his career. There’s something refreshingly real about these images. Shot in the rural English countryside or in downtrodden hotel rooms, they draw a parallel between the luxuries of fashion and the needs of everyday life. The shoe is an after-thought, a player in a larger scene that asked ‘bigger’ questions not generally associated with (fashion) advertising. Interestingly, Bourdin would continue to create advertising throughout the duration of his career, even after his editorial success. Perhaps the boundaries of commerce stimulated creativity, perhaps Bourdin like the pay-check – either way, they remain some of the most arresting in his entire output.
The early, sexualised images made for Jourdan laid the groundwork for Bourdin’s Vogue Paris editorials. Although the marked a seismic shift from the ‘girl-next-door’ image cultivated by David Bailey and (who lensed models including Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton) in the 1960s, Bourdin still preferred to create believable worlds that he made his own through colour and composition. Just as he appropriated from Man Ray, he borrowed from Hollywood, notably a sense of narrative and suspense. Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘MacGuffin’ principle was utilised to add story-fied elements to static imagery, similarly the ‘Dorste’ effect where a recursive image is produced by inserting a repeat image into the frame. By melding the two effects, he created images that were fun yet compelling, disturbing and delighting.
By imbuing implied violence, psychoanalysis and ambiguous narratives into fashion photography and advertising, Bourdin pushed product into second place. The sexual charge – and the depiction of women – were, and can still be, divisive, but simply viewing them as soft-core publicity generators is underselling Bourdin’s talent. Of course, there have been many admirers and imitators. In 2003, Madonna settled out-of-court after the Bourdin estate contested that too many scenes from her ‘Hollywood’ music video resembled the late photographer’s work. Open just about any women’s fashion magazine and you’ll discovered watered-down homages. The boundaries between art, fashion photography and commerce have always been fluid. The fact that Bourdin managed to straddle and transcend them all within his career is just one of the reasons why his influence extends to contemporary practice, 20 years after his death and more than 40 since he made some of his most iconic – and provocative – works. That’s why Bourdin seems so familiar. In an industry that thrives on cycles, his comes back into (visual) fashion more regularly than most.
Guy Bourdin: Image Maker is at Somerset House until 15 March 2015