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.
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
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