A guide to Guy Bourdin: 'Image Maker'

The glossy and troubling world of the French photographer is explored at Somerset House this winter. We takes a trip to the darkroom…

  • Guy Bourdin

    Charles Jourdan, Autumn 1977

    © Guy Bourdin

    Guy Bourdin
  • Guy Bourdin

    Vogue Paris, May 1970

    © Guy Bourdin

    Guy Bourdin
  • Guy Bourdin

    Charles Jourdan, Autumn 1979

    © Guy Bourdin

    Guy Bourdin
  • Guy Bourdin

    Pentax Calendar, 1980

    © Guy Bourdin

    Guy Bourdin
  • Guy Bourdin

    Charles Jourdan, Spring, 1976

    © Guy Bourdin

    Guy Bourdin
  • Guy Bourdin

    Charles Jourdan, Spring, 1979

    © Guy Bourdin

    Guy Bourdin
  • Guy Bourdin

    Charles Jourdan, January 1980

    © Guy Bourdin

    Guy Bourdin
  • Guy Bourdin

    Charles Jourdan, Autumn 1970

    © Guy Bourdin

    Guy Bourdin
  • Guy Bourdin

    Charles Jourdan, Autumn 1979

    © Guy Bourdin

    Guy Bourdin
  • Guy Bourdin

    © Guy Bourdin

    Guy Bourdin
  • Guy Bourdin

    © Guy Bourdin

    Guy Bourdin

Guy Bourdin

Charles Jourdan, Autumn 1977

© Guy Bourdin

A girl lies on a bed. For some reason, she’s making a phone call wearing just gold-lamé hotpants, and the flex is taut across her crotch, emphasising her labia. A girl lies face-down on the floor, naked. The photo is cropped so her bare arse is just in frame, and she seems to have puked up about four pints of scarlet paint or nail varnish. A girl lies in a field, in front of some goalposts, through which you can see a hillock with a pubic coppice of trees on top of it. For a change, she’s not starkers, but she does have a shoe on her chest.

At first (and second, third and fourth) glance, the work of French photographer Guy Bourdin seems like some kind of psychosexual headfuck rampage. Girls are slung over doors, and shoved under beds, and generally chucked around the place. But all these photos were commissioned by big-name commercial clients. The goalposts one was for a Charles Jourdan shoe campaign, the nail varnish one (pictured) and the phoner were for a 1980 Pentax calendar, while Bourdin was a regular in Vogue Paris from the ’60s to the ’80s, exercising unheard-of creative control over his work. ‘People loved him,’ says Alistair O’Neill, co-curator of a new show of Bourdin’s photography at Somerset House. ‘They looked forward to the next ad campaign.’

Bourdin (1928-91) was a surrealist in an age when tapping into people’s subconscious was all about getting them to buy things. He devoted his genius not to ‘art’ but to ads and fashion shoots because that’s where the cultural self-exploration was going on. He was a mad man among the ‘Mad Men’. ‘He takes a very basic proposition of fashion photography – to sell something – to an extreme, by staging desire,’ says O’Neill. ‘He subverts it. He says: “Look at this image. Is it about my desire? It doesn’t seem to be about the product, but is it also about your desire?” He implicates himself, because I think a lot of the work is very personal. But we’re also implicated as viewers, and that’s what makes the work so fascinating.’

'His work still has the ‘whoa!’ factor. It’s not just tits-and-arse'

© Guy Bourdin

Trained as a painter, Bourdin became a protégé of the surrealist artist Man Ray in the 1950s, and began to explore photography. He first appeared in Vogue Paris in 1955. At the time, fashion photography was mainly illustrative, occasionally witty, always appealing. It was also largely monochrome. Bourdin set about upsetting most of these conventions, but his greatest leap in the language of fashion imagery was a basic one: colour. ‘It’s not refined, it’s not chic,’ says O’Neill. ‘It’s a sense of colour drawn from popular culture. It’s quite jarring in the context of Vogue.’

The new show has exhibition-quality prints of images that were only ever intended to appear on magazine pages. In his lifetime, Bourdin was notoriously chary about his work being seen in galleries, art books, or private collections. The collector (and partner of Robert Mapplethorpe) Sam Wagstaff once sent Bourdin a blank cheque in an attempt to buy his prints. Bourdin returned it, torn up. ‘The logic of the magazine is important in understanding his work,’ says O’Neill. ‘It’s about the woman at the hairdresser’s, flicking through Vogue, coming across something she wasn’t expecting, as a trigger to something else. It’s flick… flick… flick… whoa!’ Bourdin’s work still has the ‘whoa!’ factor. It’s not just the tits-and-arse: there’s plenty of that in, say, Helmut Newton. But what Newton’s eroticised classicism lacks, Bourdin has in spades: psychodrama and a sense of bloody humour. ‘The heightened mood of his imagery owes a lot to film,’ says O’Neill. ‘He had a passion for film noir. He’s taking stills from those films and transforming them into fashion photography.’

In an era of endless image manipulation, there’s something ironically wholesome about Bourdin’s pre-digital theatre of the absurd, however dark. They’re often quite simple ideas, consummately realised. ‘The sense of the artificial is amazing in Bourdin,’ says O’Neill. ‘He likes shadow, and the silhouette being thrown. His subjects are slightly caught in the headlights.’ Or caught in a telephone cable, of course.