What comes to mind when you first touch upon the name Guy Bourdin? A painter and photographer who’s career spanned more than forty years with clients such as Vogue, Chanel and Charles Jourdan.
His list of exhibitions include grand places such as The Victoria & Albert Museum, Jeu de Paume, national art museum of China, Moscow house of photography and MoMA (the list goes on). Throughout the course of his career Guy Bourdin earned the title as one of the most influential and radical fashion photographers of the twentieth century.
Bourdin instinctively painted his entire life and became the self-taught photographer who, in his own way, cast a spell on the world’s leading fashion houses and magazines. Especially Vouge Paris, known to amuse and intrigue more than any other magazine at the time. It was here that he worked for many years under the editorship of Francine Crescent. Though Bourdin proved to master both black&white and color works, it is probably the color work we remember most for the intense saturation and textures woven into his famous style of composition. He was a true master of the storyboard, strongly led by his conviction that it is not fashion itself which seduces people, but the fantasy it represents.
On some level his work is not about photography at all. Instead photography became his medium for creating a message. He was after all a painter at heart. However, this does not imply that his work was easy to “read”. In fact it was often quite difficult to decode, as he was drawn to exploring the world in between the absurd and sublime. You may be shocked or provoked by what you see, but each image is an invitation to dig a little deeper. It was also his surreal and erotic aesthetic that broke all conventions of commercial photography. One must also keep in mind that this was before the age of digital retouching and most fashion photography presented models such as Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton. Bourdin’s work simply demanded a more intellectual response.
Often times people automatically accept a piece possessing the title ‘legend’ or ‘master piece’ without truly asking why the work was and still is important, acting as ‘change-makers’ of their own time creating new ideas and wider perspectives. This is not about questioning an artist’s work, it is about truly taking your time to understand and honor what the artist worked so hard to communicate. This has very little to do with eyesight. First impressions are not enough, behind each picture there is a story which was created within the context of Bourdin’s own time. This might be what sets him apart from the many copyists who followed his lead, who might only focus on his aesthetics.
During his lifetime Bourdin never published a monograph and preferred to publish his images in magazines rather than hang them in galleries. Now you can find his work in many museums and galleries around the world. Despite his becoming of a ‘cult figure’ among fashion insiders and the world of photography, Bourdin himself never made interviews, nor wished to have his photograph on Vouge’s contributors page. He was renowned for being a private person. This may be difficult to understand today when the selfie, instagram and selfpromotion rule most of our media landscape. But was he really private or solitary? There are many stories about the life he lived, which makes it hard to know what to believe and state as fact. Often times the words of those who lived and worked close to Bourdin, feel most true. Bourdin’s son Samuel describes him with the words “shy, generous, perfectionist and hard working”. That his father’s main focus never was success, wealth or the access to the women constantly surrounding him. He held a different approach to his work and it was foremost about being an image maker. Samuel recalls his father’s deep knowledge of poetry and how work was his way to express, explore and push creative boundaries. In the end Guy Bourdin never really put too much focus on himself, it was always about the images and the art, so that is probably what he would wish we would focus on as well.
With this in mind, the echoes of Bourdin’s work also set an important example for the younger generation of creatives; to take creative risks and dig a little deeper into why we choose to make something. To create not only to be something, but to do and to say something.
Ongoing exhibition Avant-Garde at Fotografiska 27 November – 21 February 2016
Words by Anna Åhren