Gallery Shines its light on the seductive world of Guy Bourdin

Story by Jack Foley

AT BEST seductive, but often surreal in the extreme, the world of photographer Guy Bourdin is one which always managed to surprise and provoke a reaction. His work during the Sixties and Seventies, during his heyday, always courted controversy and was frequently as stunning as it could be unsettling.

Yet during the Eighties, Bourdin was a photographer in decline and became largely forgotten by the time of his death, from cancer, on March 29, 1991, at the age of 62.

His earlier work, however, remains an important and enduring legacy which can be viewed at The Shine Gallery, on the second floor of 3 Jubilee Place, SW3 until April 6, 2002.

Bourdin had the ability to make a pair of shoes look like fetish objects, or pieces of evidence left at a crime scene. He loved to merge the beautiful with the kinky, frequently experimenting with shots of bondage or fetishism. Yet although his work bordered on the pornographic, it was never considered that way.

Yet his career wasn't always about fashion and models. Cycling was one of his loves and, at the age of 18, he went on a cycle tour of Provence, where he met Lucien Henry, an art dealer. He stayed at his house for six months where he seriously applied himself to drawing and painting and decided to become an artist. When it was time for his military service he ended up in Dakar as an aerial photographer in the Air Force.

The seminal moment in his life, however, came when he saw Edward Weston's 1930 photograph, Pepper. It was this photograph which changed his perception of photography and the course of his life. He was influenced by surrealism and of all the surrealists, citing Man Ray as his greatest influence (he knocked on his door six times and was turned away by Man Ray's wife). On the seventh, Man Ray himself answered the door and invited him in and they became friends. He even wrote the catalogue text to Bourdin's first exhibition in 1952.

Two years later, aged 27, Bourdin went to see Vogue magazine and was offered a job. His debut was four pages of hats, one of which featured a woman standing below three skinned calves' heads. It was a bravura statement that marked out the direction of his style as a photographer

Bourdin's chief collaborator was Francine Crescent, who joined Vogue in 1957 as accessories editor and eventually ended up as director in 1977. She first worked with him in 1960. By the time Bourdin was 36, he insisted on full control of his shoots, often chose the pictures to be published himself and overlooked the layout of his pictures.

He often competed with Helmut Newton, also of Vogue, to see how far they would push the sexuality in their work, frequently taking it to the limits of what could be published by a fashion magazine. They respected and were interested in each other's work but were not friends.

Bourdin liked to portray a dark side of life, but used technicolor. His pictures are about the problems of desire and of connecting with women. According to one web-based source, the best of his photographs 'trouble the viewer and linger on the mind'... 'His work hints at narrative and has a cinematic quality - sometimes a Hitchcock feel'.

Described as a loner with very few genuine friends by Crescent, Bourdin had a studio in the Marais district of Paris that was rundown and painted black, with blacked-out windows. There was no office and no telephone and no way to reach the outside world. It was here that he would build his sets and work at all hours of the day or night.

Outside of the studio, he loved to travel abroad and would repeatedly return to his native Normandy. He preferred to walk everywhere so that he could properly observe what was around him.

According to his half-brother Michel, Bourdin's life was also dark. Like their father, Guy was hard on women, treating them as man's servant rather than a companion. He married twice but his second wife took her own life after years spent locked away from the outside world.

By the mid eighties, Bourdin had become difficult to work with. The focus of fashion photography was changing and he was being pursued by the French state for non-payment of taxes. He spent much of his time painting canvases that he never finished prior to his death.

Fans of the photographer like to think that his if he is forgotten today, it is because he wanted it that way. A lot of his work has been lost or deteriorated due to his bad storage. He refused to sell his work to collectors and did not like pictures of himself published. Bourdin even refused the Grand Prix National de la Photographie saying that it did not fit into his way of living or thinking.

Now, however, with the exhibition at the Shine Gallery and the publication of a new book - Exhibit A: Guy Bourdin - his work looks set to be re-discovered.

The Shine Gallery opened November 30th 2000 as the first contemporary art gallery in London to specialise in the latest developments in contemporary art photography. Its primary goal is to move beyond the aegis of traditional photography and into the unchartered territory of a 21st century photographic sensibility.

London Exhibition, 6 Feb–6 Apr, Shine Gallery, 2nd Floor, 3 Jubilee Place, SW3. Tel: 020 7352 4499. Tue–Sat: 12–6

Click here for a really useful link for further information about Bourdin.