The most revealing insight from the new retrospective of Guy Bourdin’s work at Somerset House in London is the exploration into his creative process, his personal hunt for perfection. Bourdin’s obsession with preproduction – planning each shot in meticulous detail with Polaroids, notebooks, sketches and even paintings, before lifting a camera – served him well as he quickly became one of the most celebrated fashion photographers of his era, alongside Helmut Newton and Richard Avedon.
Curated by Alastair O’Neil and Shelly Verthime, Guy Bourdin: Image Maker is the largest UK exhibition of the photographer’s work to date, with over 100 works including many previously unseen films, paintings and preparatory studies.
Bourdin’s archive is as relevant today as it was 40 years ago; ingenuity combined with wit, concept and a bold sense of experimentation. We continue to see creatives and photographers around the globe pay homage to his unique aesthetic, a testament to his popularity and influence. Although his images illustrate his playful fascination with sex and violence, death and sadomasochism, this exhibition gives a fresh perspective on the man renowned for pushing the sexual revolution of his time to its limits.
The majority of the show focuses on the iconic work Bourdin shot for his two main clients: Vogue Paris and shoe company Charles Jourdan. It opens with the series Britain by Cadillac (1979), a campaign that played a significant role in his long relationship with Charles Jourdan, replacing a model with a pair of mannequin legs cut just below the knee. The shoot was an experiment in simplification, no model, just the legs, a suitcase of shoes, his family and an assistant, on the road for the summer. If only advertising campaigns were still made this way today.
The mystery fuels engagement in this surreal series. It’s down to the viewer to complete the images and imagine who the women might be in each individual narrative. A seductive yet subtle proposition for an advertising campaign, cleverly making room for the consumer. Indeed, Bourdin was a master of making the viewer an active part of the experience of his images, often forcing us into voyeuristic situations. This impressive body of work for Jourdan clearly demonstrates his constant reinvention of the brand’s narrative in a powerful and subversive way. In today’s safety-first climate, it feels revolutionary to see a client be so bold.
Rejecting the mainstream conventions of beauty, Bourdin focused on making work that subverted the world of fashion by fusing it with sex and violence. His erotic images were a staple in Vogue Paris for over 40 years. Alongside the familiar iconic prints, previously unpublished work reveals how far Bourdin would go to push the commercial boundaries to the dark side.
My personal favourite is an image of a burglar painfully suspended over a door, clutching a diamond necklace. Much has been said about Bourdin’s relationship with his models, some believing he treated them as puppets, and the photographs serve to illustrate the often challenging and unnatural positions many of them would have to hold to bring his vision to life.
Throughout the main gallery, there are smaller spaces dedicated to his preparatory work. Newly released by his estate, this material shows a depth to his process. In our fast-paced, image-hungry world, behind-the-scenes material saturates our content-driven culture. Although ubiquitous, we rarely gain insight into the work processes of imagemakers who operated in the pre-digital world.
The arches in the main gallery share sketches and notebooks, ideas in progress that enrich our understanding of his working methods. Even at the height of his career, making huge volumes of work, Bourdin rehearsed the composition of each image in a technical drawing before he photographed them. A self-taught painter, the painting room of the exhibition illustrates his fascination with the medium as a method of crystalising his thinking and experimenting with extremes. The paintings acted as a precursor to much of his work – often incomplete, they lack depth, with all the activity in the fore of the picture plane.
Moving into the layout room, visitors explore his hands-on approach to layout, a luxury granted only to Bourdin and Newton by Vogue Paris. Yet considering the importance of this part of his process, the curation of this room fails to do it justice. The selection of work lacks his signature inventiveness, and mounted in glass cabinets, it leaves the visitor battling reflections with little gain. An interactive digital display feels like it would have been a more engaging way to describe this subject matter.
Super 8 films also pepper the entire show, starting with rough, non-linear slices of observation details from his road trip around Britain. The films are unedited, each one features many clips from different scenes. Capturing things in real time, while sometimes quite crude and simple, these films anticipate the evolution of fashion films as we know them today. Following this, the main film installation room consumes the field of vision, playing a range of shorts with a variety of models in different mise-en-scènes. They are set to Bernhard Hermann’s track Twisted Nerve, best known for its appearance in Quentin Tarantino’s film Kill Bill, contemporising the work, making its light, bubblegum sexiness increasingly sinister and Hitchcockian.
A small room in the lower gallery is then dedicated to exploring some of his most technically difficult shots. One series of contact sheets illustrates the painstaking approach to creating a human spider out of four models piled on top of each other, assistants tweaking their bodies to ensure the final image achieves Bourdin’s vision.
We end on a final video of Bourdin himself, on a recce, carrying his own gear, hunting for his next location. It’s hard to believe the unassuming man in the film is the same man who has been credited for bringing violence and fetishism to Vogue and responsible for creating some of the most radically daring and utterly captivating fashion imagery of the last 50 years. A master of filling the frame with just enough to seduce the viewer into falling down the rabbit hole with him. 1
Gemma Fletcher is senior art director at Getty Images. Guy Bourdin: Image Maker is at Somerset House in London until March 15. See somersethouse.org.uk