Guy Bourdin by Alison Gingeras

Gingeras, A. (2006). Guy Bourdin. London, Phaidon Press.

I read this book after visiting an exhibition of his work at the ‘ Guy Bourdin avant- garde’ exhibition at Fotografisaka in Stockholm in February 2016.

The book is a collection of some of his best known images preceded by  a 3,500 word introduction. The images cover his early experiments with black and white street photography in the early 1950’s to his last works with Charles Jourdan shoes in 1981.
The best of these early images is ‘Interior of Man Ray’s studio, Paris, France’ (unpublished) c 1953-57. The surrealist and Dadaist Man Ray was a an inspiration for Bourdin who sought him out after completing his military service where he trained as a photographer. In the early 1950’s he had exhibited drawings but continued to experiment with dramatic black and white compositions and street photography. Bourdin describes himself at that time as an intense solitary man and perhaps this search for a similar soul in Man Ray he found a model as an uncompromising avante grade photographer. They did not become close but Man Ray wrote a special introduction for one of Bourdin’s first exhibitions.

The book charts his evolution as a photographer and has a very helpful time-line at the back.  A self portrait of him from the mid 1950’s shows him as an intense young man with table props such as naked doll torsos and heads. These signifiers suggest experimentation and exploration of alternative ideas.

Throughout his career he demanded total control of his artistic brief and might only submit one image with instructions on where and how it should appear in the magazine. He was helped in this by the “ferocious support” of Vogue’s editor Francine Crescent.

His first pictorial image Chapeaux-choc (Hat Shocker) in 1955 is striking. An elegant model with a wide brimmed hat is posed beneath a row of pigs heads at grimey meat market in Paris. This was not a standard Vogue submission. Many people were scandalised but this led to a thirty year relationship with the magazine and a shift from models being objects for clothes to being a part of the story.

Bourdin is best known for his surrealist fashion images for Vogue and his titillating  advertisements for Charles Jourdan shoes. He changed the face of fashion photography by constructing visual narratives where the clothes or shoes were relegated to a subsidiary role in the image. Some of these images shocked as they suggested themes of sex and violence, but they were always dramatic graphic compositions full of colour.

Alison Gingeras summarises his contribution to photography;

“Bourdin became famed for his suggestive narratives and surreal scenes and transformed the mundane into extraordinary scenes piquing the subconscious of the viewer and igniting the imagination. He developed a signature technique of hyper saturated colours and interplays of shadows and light, low horizons and high grounds, tightly cropped compositions as well as minute detail to his model’s make-up.”

In many of his shoe images we see a pair of real or plastic legs (cut off below the knees) and placed  in unusual situations but within a planned coherent story. Here the model is a fragment of the whole and reduced to a (sexualised) object.

A number of the images in the exhibition have signifiers of death and violence. Sometimes this is oblique but often overt as in the model vomiting red or red dripping from a wall socket.

What Gingeras does well is place the work in a historical context and explain what his images say.

Gingeras, A. (2006). Guy Bourdin. London, Phaidon Press.