Guy Bourdin, a brief biography from the Louise Alexander Gallery website which is responsible for administering The Guy Bourdin Estate.
“A painter his entire life and a self-taught photographer, he was working for magazines, such as Vogue as well as for brands such as Chanel, Ungaro and Charles Jourdan. He exhibited his first photographs at Galerie 29 in 1952. Nowadays his work has been exhibited in the most prestigious museums, such as The Victoria & Albert Museum, The Jeu de Paume, The National Art Museum of China, The Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography and The Moscow House of Photography. His oeuvres is part of the collection of many prestigious institutions such as the MoMA in New York, The Getty Museum in Los Angeles, SFMOMA in San Francisco and the collection of the V&A among others.
Guy Bourdin’s career spanned more than forty years during which time he worked for the world’s leading fashion houses and magazines. With the eye of a painter, Guy Bourdin created images that contained fascinating stories, compositions, both in B&W and in colors. He was among the 1st to create images with narratives, telling stories and shows that the image is more important than the product which is displayed. Using fashion photography as his medium, he sent out his message, one that was difficult to decode, exploring the realms between the absurd and the sublime. Famed for his suggestive narratives and surreal aesthetics, he radically broke conventions of commercial photography with a relentless perfectionism and sharp humor.” (Louise Alexander Gallery – Contemporary Art Gallery, 2017)
Bourdin is well known for his compelling and provocative images for the shoe maker Charles Jourdan advertising campaigns in the 1970’s. In many respects this seems a match made in heaven, as I suspect not many clients of the time would be willing to have their products not front and centre of the images. In many of Bourdin’s photographs, the shoes, are often almost a small detail in the overall image.
On a strictly visual level, the images are powerfully compelling, beautifully composed, impeccably styled and bursting with colour.
Whilst not explicit some images are distinctly overtly sexually provocative with the female models in suggestive poses such as this 1979 example again for Jourdan.
In this sense Bourdin’s images leave you feeling slightly unsettled. He was the first fashion photographer to fetishise the human body, specifically women’s legs, going so far as to remove the rest of the woman entirely.
He developed this theme by using mannequin legs in all sorts of settings (see gallery above), walking along the pavement or as replacement table legs. These images have a surreal, unearthly feel to them but make compulsive viewing. The ad campaigns were hugely successful and Bourdin was in much demand. He is credited with changing the aesthetics of fashion photography forever and his influence continues to this day with many modern photographers citing his influence on their work.
Another common theme is in his work is violence and or death and his later images strongly feature this.
Personally Bourdin had a difficult relationship with women, supposedly as a result of being abandoned by his mother as a child. He was regarded as controlling and dictatorial and two of his girlfriends committed suicide in his flat. These controlling tendencies overflowed into his professional life and he was notoriously difficult to work with on all sort of levels for example not wanting his models to work for other photographers, allegedley being delighted when one model on his shoot was covered in enamel paint and thus not being able to work for anyone else for some time.
In some circles he is credited, or rather blamed, for what was viewed as increasing violence being depicted towards women in fashion advertising such as this 2007 image which opponents claimed depicted gang rape.
This particular image created widespread controversy and was ultimately withdrawn by the company. In its defence D&G said it was art of a series that analysis showed had more images of female to male domination rather than vice versa.
Of course any discussion on the merits or otherwise of such images has to be viewed with a considerable degree of cynicism when it is produced commercially in that even though controversial D&G gained an awful lot of media coverage over the first image and an old cliche in marketing circles is “no such thing as bad publicity”.
The topic of representation of the sexes,particularly females in fashion is a huge topic, far beyond the scope of this project but it is an interesting to note that 15 years after his death Bourdin was still influencing contemporary photography in this manner.
However I think we can conclude that the volume of images like Bourdin’s in western media, filled with messages of female frailty or dominated female sexuality seem to be there for the male gaze, implying the female viewer should ask “Is that how men view women? Is that what they find attractive?” This led John Berger, celebrated art critic and insightful writer who passed away at the beginning of 2017, to observe this phenomenon as “it perpetuates the tendency for men to look at women, and women to watch themselves being looked at”