From his first provocative editorial feature in 1955, capturing haute couture alongside butchered cow heads, Guy Bourdin pushed the limits of fashion photography into foreign territory.
Seductive and surreal, Guy Bourdin’s work is dark, stylized and filled with suggestive narratives and fantastic aesthetics. He broke conventions of commercial photography with his relentless perfectionism and sharp humor, his images setting the tone for fashion photography in the ’70s and capturing the imagination of a generation.
He rode a camel, picked models by star sign, and once he actually tried to dye the sea.
The French provocateur’s mesmerizing memoir of images include glossy yet subversive Vogue editorials and iconic campaigns for footwear label Charles Jourdan, which sexualised shoes like never before. The legendary, nearly forgotten images he made with Nicolle Meyer as his model formed part of a large canon of work that is recognized as the highest note in Bourdin’s career, in his golden era, the 70s.
Though he died in relative obscurity, unflattering stories came to light in 2003 when the V&A ran a retrospective of his work. Bourdin was accused of being cruel to his models, whom he photographed in highly stylised, surreal scenarios: vomiting up nail varnish, lying apparently dead in immaculate shoes. He was known to push his models beyond their limits, but only to get his vision recorded on celluloid. There have been even more eccentric rumours about Bourdin’s life, such as his insistence on only working with people born under certain star signs; his use of sleeping pills in order to dream for long periods; and his arrival at French Vogue’s offices on a camel.
Much of his work features red-headed, pale skinned, heavily made-up models, which were purposefully reminiscent of Bourdin’s mother. The scenes he used were carefully manufactured, even them of a nature scenes, for which he would manipulate the natural lighting with reflectors to create a surreal feeling to his photos.
Bourdin tailored his compositions to the constraints of the printed page both conceptually and graphically, and the mirror motif so central in his work finds its formal counterpart in the doubleness of the magazine spread.
Layout and design become powerful metaphors for the photographic medium, engaging the eye and with it, the mind.
With the eye of a painter and the freedom of a photographer, Guy Bourdin created images full of fascinating stories, compositions, and colors.
Using fashion and fashion photography as his vehicle, he explored the realms between the absurd and the sublime, taking cues from the theater and Surrealism.
Bourdin would obsessively pursue perfection, only to have the images destroyed, which was his request to be carried out after his death.
Was the end product the photograph, or was it the process that mattered so much to him?
To this day, Guy Bourdin, remains an enigma, and he leaves a provocative and compelling legacy.
You can find more of Bourdin’s work just over here