John Jervis welcomes a retrospective that focuses on the photographer’s 1970s heyday – when his sharp, surreal images helped to define the fashion industry
In many ways, this exhibition on fashion photographer Guy Bourdin at Somerset House is the perfect retrospective. The first floor is devoted to an immaculate presentation of a seminal advertising campaign from 1979 for longtime client Charles Jourdan, comprising 22 published and unpublished iterations. The remainder is largely restricted to a substantial selection from Bourdin’s 1970s peak, including a concise insight into his rigorous preparatory methods and a more liberal showing of the jumpy, unedited Super 8 footage with which he recorded his shoots.
Bourdin was a notoriously difficult individual, both professionally and personally, leaving a series of damaged partners in his wake. Such tittle-tattle is omitted from wall texts, perhaps due to the estate’s necessarily intense involvement, but this exclusion is a mistake. The few mediocre paintings on display certainly raise a host of unanswered questions – these stiff, fleshy images of prone women or glossy statues trapped by enclosing walls, reminiscent of Delvaux or de Chirico, require explanations that are not provided. And, such was the admiration in which Bourdin’s photography was held in the 70s, he was given free rein to pursue his fetishistic interests in advertising shoots that included hanging, death, sadism, claustrophobia, asphyxiation, prepubescent sexuality, crime and much more.
Bourdin was briefly mentored by Man Ray in the early 1950s and started his career-long relationship with Paris Vogue in the mid-50s. Little from this period is included – one awkward Vogue shot transposing Irving Penn to a meat market confirms that this was a wise decision. The elements of Bourdin’s style began to coalesce in the late 1960s. Facial expressions are vacuous and body shapes sinuous in a manner little different from high-street advertising of the period. However, an increasingly perfectionist approach to qualities of light is apparent, alongside a rather laboured application of cinematic and surrealistic elements – doorways and mirrors are prevalent, as well as distortions of scale, mise en abîme and studied gestures towards Hitchcockian narratives.
The breakthrough came in the mid-70s, a period given justified prominence in the show. Bourdin embraced and enhanced the fashion industry’s adoption of a greater severity in both styling and human form, employing a hyper-saturated palette and sharpened conceptual approach. In this context, his pale, expressionless models acquire a new intensity, perhaps aided by his increased professional focus on accessories – and in particular Charles Jourdan’s footwear – which constrained his tendency towards bodily excess.
The excellence of his 1979 campaign for the company – shot (unusually) on location while touring Britain with his partner and an assistant in a black Cadillac – exemplifies this new precision. The appropriation from surrealism gains from its restraint. In each iteration, a pair of mannequin’s legs, cut off at the calf, models shoes and the occasional stocking in an unlikely location and a surprisingly lifelike pose. Occasionally, stillettos and undergarments are cast aside, as the legs lie in a shallow bath of water or prepare for bed. More often, they are taken to empty beach huts, dreary duck ponds, vandalised bus stops, decayed railway stations, the cobbled streets of an industrial town or the garish pile carpet of a cheap hotel – environments that speak of the mediocrity of the contemporary British experience. Yet meticulous lighting – often artificially enhanced – and tight composition, with gridded horizons and vertical intrusions, contribute to the unsettling sexual tension between effortless style and surrounding grime. And, throughout, Bourdin shows a surprising sensitivity, even sympathy, to the various categories of bleak on display, perhaps related to his own Normandy upbringing.
The close collaboration of an artist’s estate usually ensures a tiresome preponderance of lesser output from the extremities of a career. In this instance, the exclusion of such work (as well as, sadly, the seductive gatefold for Boz Scaggs’s Middle Man LP) is brutal. Such rigour is far preferable to indulgence, and this precision only flags at the very end, where 51 shots covering the bulk of his work with model Nicolle Meyer are displayed, followed by an equally reverential display of 30 preparatory polaroids, mildly interesting for their play of light and shade. An increase in pace is forgivable at this point. Yet, if this review reads like a series of caveats, the illustration that accompanies it should be enough to nullify all these quibbles. At his inventive best, Bourdin was unmatchable.
Guy Bourdin: Image Maker
Images: The Guy Bourdin estate; courtesy A+C