Although not as publicly celebrated today as some of his contemporaries like Richard Avedon or Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin is a name that anyone interested in fashion should certainly be familiar with — whether they know it or not.
A man fascinated with the interplay between desire and death, Bourdin spent his life exploring these grand, sprawling themes like no other photographer. He is often referred to as one of the most important visual artists of the last century, and his bold, graphic style of imagery continually challenged the long-held traditions of what fashion photography could be.
The ramifications of his groundbreaking style, his interest in overtly sexualized imagery and his penchant for the macabre all continue to be felt to this day. Here, in the third part of our series reflecting on the world’s most influential photographers, we take a look back at Guy Bourdin and the exciting new visual language he created.
Formative years: From Dakar to Man Ray
From a young age, art played a big role in Guy Bourdin’s life. Although a keen painter throughout his teenage years, it wasn’t until his military service in 1948 that he had his first real introduction to photography. Stationed in Dakar, Senegal, as an apprentice to an army photographer, he soon became familiar with the technical aspects of the camera and began to develop a formalist approach.
On his return to Paris, two years later, Bourdin became obsessed with photography, spending many years honing his skills and cultivating his own style. His early shots show the embryonic beginnings of his later work, with many images imbued with a foreboding sense of suspense and tragedy. One photo from this period shows a naked body lying face down on a pebbled beach, the expanse of an oppressive cliff face in the background dominating the shot. Here you see the seeds of many later themes that would come to define his work: death, nudity and, ultimately, narrative.
Though Bourdin experimented a lot during this period, he was eventually drawn to surrealism; this led him to seek out the guidance of Man Ray, one of the greatest visual artists of the day. Man Ray’s multidisciplinary attitude instilled in Bourdin the idea of working without constraints. He turned his back on his formalist training and adopted a rigorous understanding of surrealist principles. Man Ray taught him to use graphic imagery and exaggerated lighting in his photography, and this period of apprenticeship was fundamental in influencing his style for the rest of his career.
Soon after his experience with Man Ray, Bourdin arranged a meeting with the editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris, Edmonde Charles-Roux. His rather scant portfolio featured mainly black and white nudes and minimal fashion-orientated work, but it was enough to convince Roux to hire him.
In February 1955, Bourdin’s first work was published for Vogue Paris, and so began a 30-year relationship with the magazine. Entitled "Hat-Shocker," the shoot was something of a departure from the sedate and elegant pictures Roux was used to. Dressed in the hats of French milliner Claude Saint-Cyr, the glamorous models were captured posing in front of decapitated cow’s heads and disembowelled rabbits hanging from butcher’s hooks. Despite outcries from some sections of the readership, Roux retained her faith in Bourdin and further work saw a much greater focus on his surrealist training, with him distorting scale, proportion and logic to great effect.
What was unusual about Bourdin was his utter dedication to the medium of the fashion magazine. He worked solely within its constraints and regularly used the double page spread as a tool to add further depth and intrigue to his photography. He often used the magazine’s gutter as a prop, splitting an image in two to deliver dual meaning. This fastidious planning was evident in the reams of sketches he would produce before each new shoot.
The Arrival of Francine Crescent and the Art of Storytelling
Initially, Bourdin worked sporadically for Vogue Paris and it took the arrival of the prophetic Francine Crescent for his career to really take off. She allowed him complete creative control, and by 1968 he featured in every issue, continually finding new and exciting ways to challenge perceptions of commercial fashion photography.
Bourdin began to add narrative to his work, creating entire scenes rich with visual clues and hidden meaning. A pioneer of this technique, he managed to get the audience to consume the story he was telling rather than the clothes the models were wearing. This revolutionary approach was a strict counterpoint to the anodyne fashion photography that his peers were producing and helped to establish Bourdin as one of the standout photographers of the period.
A Troubled Life and Blurred Lines
Despite a meteoric rise to the very peak of his profession (and transforming the entire industry in the process), Bourdin was a deeply troubled man. Since his mother abandoned him shortly after his birth in Paris in 1928, the boundaries between his art and his personal life became increasingly blurred. Many concurrent themes run between the two, and to fully understand the man and his photography it is important to look back at the moments that shaped him personally.
It was many years later that Bourdin saw his mother again, barely recognizing her when she arrived at the Parisian restaurant his grandparents owned. But the glamorous, red-haired woman he saw clearly made a big impression on him. A look back through his work shows a penchant for models that bear a striking resemblance to this childhood memory of her.
The story of that fateful meeting goes that Bourdin flat refused to talk to his mother, and the two were forced into conversation by being locked in a telephone booth in the restaurant’s basement. This would explain, perhaps, the reason why a portion of his work utilizes small sets to induce feelings of claustrophobia and suffocation.
Notable tragedies also occurred much later in Bourdin’s life that would go on to inform the content of his subsequent output. His marriage in 1962 to Solange Gèze started well, but soon developed into an obsessively controlling relationship with Bourdin removing the telephone from their apartment and refusing to let her meet with friends. Although they had a son together, Samuel, the two separated after Bourdin became involved with a model named Holly Warner. Soon after, Gèze suffered a fatal overdose while watching television in bed.
Warner experienced similar patterns of overbearing behavior, and even attempted to commit suicide herself after hearing of Bourdin’s infatuation with her best friend, Eva Gschopf. Sadly it wasn’t long until Gschopf was also found dead, having killed herself by jumping out of a tree while high on LSD. Unperturbed, Bourdin entered into a relationship with Sybille Dallmer (who, like Gschopf, was a red-haired model), but as things inevitably deteriorated, Dallmer hung herself, leaving Bourdin’s young son Samuel to discover the body.
These episodes not only had a huge impact on his work, but they also tell of Bourdin’s dominating character. In the BBC documentary about his life, Dreamgirls, his friend and make-up artist, Serge Lutens, describes how the photographer would make girls stand in uncomfortable poses for as long as possible, clearly enjoying the position of power that he had. Another story tells of an elaborate shoot for Vogue Paris involving black beads covering the bodies of two models. The girls started to have difficulty breathing, but despite their protests, Bourdin continued. They eventually passed out, and, as an editor was removing the beads, Bourdin was overheard to say “oh, it would be beautiful, to have them dead in bed.”
From High Fashion to High Heels
Despite Bourdin’s personal vicissitudes, his professional career went from strength to strength and during the 1970s he was considered to be at the peak of his powers. Vogue Paris editor Francine Crescent was also instrumental in introducing him to luxury footwear designer Roland Jourdan, owner of Charles Jourdan, who would go on to become Bourdin’s patron.
The images Bourdin created for Charles Jourdan became deeply entwined with the brand’s identity. He continued his narrative style, but violence, specifically against women, became an ever more prominent feature of his work (a result, perhaps, of the troubles he was experiencing in his relationships). His photographs featured vivid colors, partially told stories and strong use of sexual imagery. It was a challenging aesthetic that brought with it admirers, detractors, and countless imitators.
The mid ’70s saw a slew of standout advertisement campaigns for Charles Jourdan that still remain hugely influential to this day. In one, a boy stares into a bedroom, a woman’s face is screaming through the static on the television in the background. On the bed lies the inert body of a lifeless woman, naked but for the towels covering her torso and her illuminated Charles Jourdan shoes. It is a scene eerily reminiscent of his wife’s death.
Another shows the chalk outline of a women’s body. A large saloon car with blacked out windows has come to a stop next to the curb. The stains bleeding into the pavement, the pink sunglasses and the single Charles Jourdan high heel are the clues left littered around the frame that lead to a greater, unknown truth.
As the ’70s ended, Bourdin was a man completely untouchable; his use of narrative and surrealism to create dreamlike scenes was unlike anything else anybody had ever attempted. His shots exuded the glamour and excess of the decade, but bristled with dark fantasy, lust and violence. The palette that Bourdin worked with consistently changed fashion photography, and clients such as Dior, Issey Miyake and Pentax couldn’t get enough of it.
Fall From Grace
Sadly, the early ’80s were not as commercially or artistically successful for Bourdin. As the fashion industry began to favor more glamorous images from the likes of Bruce Weber and Peter Lindbergh, he increasingly found himself out of favor with the big publications. He had his contract terminated with Charles Jourdan and Vogue Paris, and his subject matter became ever darker.
As the debts piled up, matters came to a head when he marched into the tax offices in Paris, called the tax officials Nazis and proceeded to strip naked in protest. He was upset when Vogue bailed him out. This was the start of his demise and he found it harder to achieve the levels of artistry that came so easily to him in his early career. Money issues continued to plague him, and in 1989 he was diagnosed with cancer. He died two years later in Paris, aged 62.
If imitation is the highest form of flattery then Bourdin must be considered one of the most important photographers of the 20th century. Even to this day, editorials and advertorials teem with techniques and themes that he first pioneered, flagrantly utilizing his trademark motifs of vivid color, sexual imagery and inferred violence. He has gone on to influence generations of photographers such as Terry Richardson, Nick Knight and David LaChapelle, but his presence extends far beyond that to the world’s of film and art.
For three decades he repeatedly questioned the long-held concepts of fashion photography, vastly extending its scope and helping to develop a new, daring language that has changed the way we all view the world.
Check back next month for a fresh installment of Know Your Photographers.