A deeper look at fashion photographer Guy Bourdin: Image Maker
Somerset House is currently hosting the UK’s largest ever exhibition of the enigmatic and commanding fashion photographer, Guy Bourdin. Over 200 works and previously unseen material from the photographer’s estate, dated 1955 to 1987, are on display in a vast and powerful exhibition.
In the 1950s, Bourdin single-handedly challenged convention by introducing death, violence and fetishism into the pages of Vogue. An obsessive formalist, the photographer created his characteristic images with the use of theatrical lighting, dramatic graphic composition and a saturated colour palette. Guy Bourdin: Image Maker contributes further to a wider appreciation of this mysterious photographer’s work, which frequently sought to arouse desire through surreal implication.
Bourdin’s distinguished 40-year career is portrayed through images that exemplify his craftsmanship from production to publication, while showing their enduring quality and uniqueness. His highly captivating editorial and advertising imagery represent a highpoint in late 20th century fashion photography, where he took the basic function of a picture (to sell clothing, beauty and accessories) and established the idea that the product is, in fact, secondary to the image.
The show opens with a series of pictures that Bourdin took for Walking Legs – a Charles Worthington campaign series – shown in its entirety for the first time. The collaboration between the photographer and French shoe designer, which lasted for decades, was known for its unorthodox take on advertising. Shot in the summer of 1979, the pair took a month-long road trip to create 22 superbly staged and polished images in quintessentially English locations, from London to Brighton. As much with his work, the model is mysteriously absent and all that is left are a pair of shoes worn on mannequin legs. These disembodied limbs in fancy heels and boots, walking through English rose gardens, across a deserted pier or positioned in a bathtub, are a fantastic example of his signature style: a classically composed image that evokes poise with a sense of eeriness.
Further exploration adds to the French photographer’s distinctive style of storytelling, whilst revealing the freedom he had in deciding his own layouts and final images, both for publications and uncirculated portfolios. Through 100 colour prints, as well as playful black and white shots, test polaroids, double page spread layouts and transparencies marked for composition, we can witness the processes involved in producing startling and provocative imagery in a pre-digital age.
Following a winding staircase, one is met with a truly breathtaking view of extensive, large prints from the Guy Bourdin Archive, mounted under the beautiful, arched roof of Somerset House. Here, Bourdin is recognised as an ingenious image maker, through all aspects of his role, from theme to composition. The photographer plays with fashion stereotypes in a way that is now familiar, but was then groundbreaking.
Bourdin is also commended as a pioneer of fashion film, with a range of Super-8s, made at the same time as his photo shoots, displayed in unison on four huge floor-to-ceiling screens. The enchanting motion pictures are simple and light-hearted, showing models frolicking with each other and laughing, before carefully freezing in their correct position. They successfully offer a glimpse into the process of creating the now near-mythical images.
Visually enticing, each corner of the exhibition boasts a fresh feast for the eyes; another section exposes Bourdin’s pleasantly surprising talent as a draughtsman, illustrated through striking oil paintings, working drawings and meticulous sketches, produced prior to his career as a commercial photographer.
Guy Bourdin remains an influential figure in fashion photography, and over the past two decades, his signature style has been frequently imitated in fashion editorials, art and pop culture. We strongly recommend this incredible exhibition for Bourdin fans and photography enthusiasts alike.
Photos: Rebekah Absalom
Guy Bourdin: Image Maker is at Somerset House until 15th March 2015. For further information or to book visit here.