This exhibition at Somerset House is a major retrospective of the late French Fashion Photographer Guy Bourdin. Bourdin started as the protégé of the surrealist Man Ray in the early 1950s, his most well known work is from the 70s and 80s for Paris Vogue, other fashion magazines and adverts. This show is the largest ever exhibition of his work in the UK and features work from the 1950s to the late 1980s. During his lifetime Bourdin turned down opportunities to exhibit his work or have books on his work produced indeed at one time he said he wanted his work destroyed after his death. Fortunately much of his work survives not least because Bourdin kept little of it.
In the world of fashion photography today there is endless digital manipulation of images; often what appears in magazines or adverts is very different from what was captured in the camera. Despite its complex narratives and often dark and surreal glamour Bourdin’s work belongs to a period when scenes were set up with great care so the camera could capture the photographers and art directors’ vision. This is not to say there is no post processing in Bourdin’s work but certainly vastly less than is common today. As part of this exhibition there are super 8 films that Bourdin took of his shoots which provide a fascinating insight into how he worked.
Despite the complex narrative in some of his pictures Bourdin did not always work with a large crew. The exhibition starts with the set of images produced in 1979 during what has been know as his Cadillac tour. During this time he toured Britain in an old Black Cadillac with partner, his son and his assistant. Taking with them a pair of mannequin legs and a collection of Charles Jourdan shoes the resulting pictures are extraordinary. Somehow in whatever setting he placed the legs the viewer can see the woman who isn’t there and in many case perhaps even hear her heels clicking down the street.
While the Cadillac or legs pictures above show Bourdin working in a simple style many of his pictures required more complex sets and carefully selected and arrange props. However even in these more complex shots there is the same feeling that the viewer is looking at a snapshot in a complex narrative indeed there is often a feeling that you could be looking at a still from a film.
Many of Bourdin’s pictures have erotic and narrative you can just imagine that the woman below with the phone cord wrapped around her and her tongue licking the phone is on a call to her lover. This and similar pictures are certainly have deeply erotic but the embedded narrative and attention to detail in the staging moves them far from the world of pornography.
There is also a dark voyeurism to some Bourdin’s work which is very evident in the picture below, are we just looking a very beautiful dead body or is there some more subtle message?
Vivid bright colours feature in much of Bourdin’s work either in the form of props of the models clothing. In the picture below we see this colour to highlight the legs along with the darkness of the narrative, what happens when the train arrives?
Bourdin’s start in the world of Surrealism is evident in much of his work, the three legs in the picture above is an example why is three better than two would four be better? The use of three just adds mystery, is this reality or a dream involving a three legged woman?
To me the picture below of the multiple hands covering a woman’s eyes personifies the influence of Surrealism on Bourdin’s work.
Finally the picture below has been used in much of the publicity for the exhibition at Somerset House and to me it really captures the essence of Bourdin’s work: the legs give it an erotic feel, the woman’s head either cut off or sinking into the floor gives a sense of darkness and the vivid colours make it look hyper realistic and hint at it being a dream rather than reality.