An artist whose distinct style is instantly recognizable, Guy Bourdin’s use of color, frame and form is highly unique and utterly surprising.
Widely considered to have changed the face of fashion photography forever, French photographer Guy Bourdin’s innovative voice and visionary work is no longer seen solely in the context of commercial photography but is well esteemed in the annals of contemporary fine art.
Bourdin’s early childhood was beset by disruption after his parent’s separation. Growing up in the care of his grandparents, he only communicated with his mother via a telephone in the phone booths of the Brasserie his grandparents owned in Paris.
Bourdin led a quiet childhood in the solitude of his own imagination, leaving home at eighteen to embark on a cycling tour of Provence, where he met art-dealer Lucien Henry. Whilst lodging with Henry for 6 months, Bourdin focussed on painting and drawing until it was his time to begin mandatory military service.
First introduced to photography whilst stationed in Dakar in 1948-1949 working in the Air Force, after completing his service Guy Bourdin supported himself with menial jobs but continued to paint in his spare time. Intrigued by the work of the surrealists, in particular, the prodigious Man Ray, who worked with the medium of photography, Bourdin sought to become his protégé.
Seeking out Man Ray’s mentorship by showing up uninvited at his door, and being turned away by his wife (no less than seven times), Bourdin was eventually successful on the eighth occasion when the artist himself opened the door and invited him in. Bourdin succeeded in gaining Man Ray’s confidence and later wrote the catalog for his first exhibition in 1952.
Clearly bearing the influences of his mentor, with a particular proclivity for depicting the sinister and erotic aspects of everyday life, Bourdin’s early work demonstrates his interest in shooting from experimental angles, something that would become a signature trope in his later work.
Bourdin’s first shots were exhibited in Vogue in 1955 and it was around this same time that he formed a friendship with contemporary, Helmut Newton, who also shot extensively for the magazine.
Each artist motivated and galvanized the other, engaging in a healthy competition and engendering some remarkable work that ultimately set the tone for what fashion photography would become. Reflecting on their relationship Newton once remarked: “If he had been alone or I had been alone it wouldn’t have worked.”
As such, their work greatly compliments each other, both shooting contorted female bodies, scenarios tinged with a surrealist element, and employing the use of props, harsh lighting, bright colors, and pure melodrama. Bourdin continued to work for Vogue until 1987.
Between 1967 and 1981, Bourdin produced some of his most memorable work under the employment of shoe designer Charles Jourdan, who essentially became his patron. His work for Jourdan employed anthropomorphic compositions, suggestive narratives and explored the realms between the absurd and the sublime. His surreal aesthetics were delivered with sharp humor and were always eagerly anticipated by the media.
“I have never perceived myself as responsible for my images.
They are just accidents. I am not a director, merely an agent of chance”
Bourdin sought to transcend the reality of the photographic medium, despite engaging with the formal elements of composition. Given complete creative freedom, Bourdin captured the imagination of an entire generation.
Instinctively knowing how to grab the attention of the viewer, the unusual stories that are suggested in his photographs incite the audience’s imagination. Complemented with an aesthetic of hyper-real colors, the interplay of light and shadow, and muted eroticism, Bourdin reinvented beauty standards, as well as reevaluating social mores. His visual disruptions demanded cerebral responses, and he always approached the product he was meant to advertise as merely a trivial element within a theatrical play.
In 1985, Bourdin was offered the Grand Prix National de la Photographie by the French Ministry of Culture, though, believing it to be self-indulgent, he politely turned it down. Despite this, his name is retained on the list of winners, and in 1988 he accepted the International Center of Photography’s Infinity Award (presented to him by Annie Leibovitz in NYC) for his Chanel advertising campaign.
His moody, alluring images will be remembered as changing the course of fashion photography forever, and his relentlessness and passion for the medium make his creative legacy truly immense.
All images © The Guy Bourdin Estate 2021
Courtesy of Louise Alexander Gallery