Guy Louis Bourdin was a provocative French fashion photographer.
Bourdin was one of the best known photographers of fashion and advertising of the second half of the 20th century. He shared Helmut Newton‘s taste for controversy and stylization
Life and career
Guy Louis Bourdin (December 2, 1928 in Paris – March 29, 1991 in Paris)
Guy Louis Banarès was born December 2, 1928, at 7 Rue Popincourt, Paris. He was abandoned by his mother the following year, and was adopted by Maurice Désiré Bourdin, who brought him up with the help of his mother Marguerite Legay. During his military service in Dakar (1948–1949), he received his first photography training as a cadet in the French Air Force.
In 1950 he returned to Paris, where he met Man Ray, and became his protégé. Bourdin made his first exhibition of drawings and paintings at Galerie, Rue de la Bourgogne, Paris. His first photographic exhibition was in 1953. Bourdin exhibited under the pseudonym Edwin Hallan in his early career.
His first fashion shots were published in the February issue of Vogue Paris in 1955. He continued to work for the magazine until 1987.
Bourdin married Solange Marie Louise Gèze in 1961, who gave birth to his only child, Samuel in 1967. His wife died of a heart condition in Normandy in 1971.
An editor of Vogue magazine introduced Bourdin to shoe designer Charles Jourdan, who became his patron, and Bourdin shot Jourdan’s ad campaigns between 1967 and 1981. His quirky anthropomorphic compositions, intricate mise en scene ads were greatly recognized and always greatly anticipated by the media.
In 1985, Bourdin turned down the Grand Prix National de la Photographie, awarded by the French Ministry of Culture, but his name is retained on the list of award winners.
Bourdin was one of the best known photographers of fashion and advertising of the second half of the 20th century. He shared Helmut Newton‘s taste for controversy and stylization, but Bourdin’s formal daring and the narrative power of his images exceeded the bounds of conventional advertising photography. Shattering expectations and questioning boundaries, he set the stage for a new kind of fashion photography. Bourdin worked for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, and shot ad campaigns for Chanel, Issey Miyake,Emanuel Ungaro, Gianni Versace, Loewe, Pentax and Bloomingdale’s.
Since his death, Guy Bourdin has been hailed as one of the greatest fashion photographers of all time, and his son Samuel Bourdin released a book with the finest prints of his father’s work, called “Exhibit A” in 2001 (co-edited with Fernando Delgado). His first retrospective exhibition was held at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London 2003, and then toured the National gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, and Jeu de Paume in Paris.
Style and themes
Bourdin was the first photographer to create a complex narrative, then snatch a moment — sensual, provocative, shocking, exotic, surrealistic, sometimes sinister — and simply associate it with a fashion item. The narratives were strange and mysterious, sometimes full of violence, sexuality, and surrealism. Bourdin was influenced by his mentor Man Ray, photographer Edward Weston, the surrealist painters Magritte and Balthus, and film maker Luis Buñuel. Even though much less well known to the public than his colleague Helmut Newton (also working for Vogue), Bourdin possibly has been more influential on the younger generations of fashion photographers.
Guy Bourdin was a short man with a whiny voice, and had a reputation of being incredibly demanding. Dark rumours surrounded him: his mother abandoning him as an infant, the suicides of his wife and two of his girlfriends, and the cruelty in which he treated his models.
Bourdin did not look like a fashion photographer but like a peasant and had podgy little peasant’s hands. He was a dark genius who expressed himself through the medium of fashion photography. He portrayed a dark side, but in Technicolor. His pictures are about the problems of desire and of connecting with women. The best of them trouble the viewer and linger on the mind. His work hints at narrative and has a cinematic quality – sometimes a Hitchcock feel.
Bourdin had a studio in the Marais district of Paris that was rundown and painted black with blacked out the windows. There was no office and no telephone and no way to reach the outside world. There he would build his sets and work at all hours of the day or night. He had an impish persona and would play music and scamper back and forth and giggle in a corner. Bourdin would make a drawing and work towards it, then think of some other picture to do. He used a Hasselblad, an was one of the first to use an ultrawide 18mm lens on his 35mm Nikon. He favoured a deathly pallor to the skin and doll-like make-up of the face -he knew the shock value of images of death and glamour. He was difficult on himself and on others too. He wanted perfection. Perfect hair, perfect everything.
Since his death
Bourdin was not a natural self-promoter, and did not collect his work or make any attempt to preserve them; in fact he refused several offers of exhibitions, rejected ideas for books, and wanted his work destroyed after his death (but since he didn’t keep so much of his work for himself, fortunately most of it was saved). The first major book devoted to his work was Exhibit A (mentioned above), released ten years after his death.
Madonna’s 2003 music video for Hollywood was greatly influenced by the photography of Bourdin, so much so that a lawsuit was brought on against her by Bourdin’s son for copyright infringement.
A documentary program, Dreamgirls: The photographs of Guy Bourdin, was shown for the BBC in 1991. Fashion photographers like Helmut Newton and Jean-Baptiste Mondino talked about how Bourdin managed to shoot fashion photography in his own unique way .
A New Era
By the mid eighties Bourdin was in decline. Francine Crescent had left French Vogue in 1987 so he had no one championing his work and they began to refuse some of his pictures. He became more demanding and difficult to work with. Fashion photography was also moving towards a “naturalistic” style and away from the contrivances of the seventies and Bourdin’s golden decade was behind him. He was also pursued by the French state for the non-payment of taxes and tormented by personal crises. He spent much of his time painting canvases that he never finished and eventually died of cancer 29th March 1991 age 62.
Bourdin often talked of exhibiting his work or producing a book, but he never did. Maybe he was trying to crystallise his work into some bright and shiny jewel before he could put it out, but that never happened. If today he has largely been forgotten and not as illustrious as his contemporary, Helmut Newton, 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 or thinking. He strived to make his images as perfect as possible but once they were published they were dead to him. He had already moved on. It is as if he was more interested in the process of creation than the final image itself. He was a perfectionist and the curse of perfectionism is procrastination and ultimate dissatisfaction.
Now with the publication of the new book Exhibit A: Guy Bourdin, there will be a reassessment of his work and maybe he will finally get the recoginition and the place in photographic history he deserves. He was not just a master of fashion photography. He was also a master of constructed photography.
Arts & Curations
Originally published on Oct 2, 2012 — SOKORA VORA –