Guy Bourdin Profile
Guy Bourdin was born, to a single mother, on 2 December 1928, into a world full of flesh and adults – the 11th arrondissement of Paris, north east of the Bastille, west of the Père Lachaise Cemetery. Even now it’s the most crowded place in the whole of Europe.
When Bourdin arrived in it, as Guy Louis Banarès, it was more than half as packed again. He lived, with his mother, a few streets away from le Cirque d’Hiver. Before his first birthday, his mother gave him away to Maurice Désiré Bourdin, who raised him, with help from his mother, Marguerite Legay.
Bourdin started taking pictures in the late 1940s during his national service with the French Air Force. On his return to Paris, he found friendship with Man Ray, the Brooklyn boy Emmanuel Radnitzky who had reinvented himself as a Parisian surrealist. Bourdin had a show of his paintings and drawings in 1950.
Two years later, he had a second, this time including photographs and dedicated to Man Ray. The year after, he had his first photography-only show, for which he shielded himself (like his mentor) behind a pseudonym, Edwin Hallen. The following year, his pictures were shown at London’s Whitechapel Gallery.
In February 1955, his first commission appeared in French Vogue. Although he continued to draw and paint – and show his art – the rest of his professional and artistic life was dominated by his work as an advertising and magazine fashion photographer. He worked for French Vogue until 1987. “Chic, disturbing, and often surreal” was US Vogue’s judgement on that classic period of Bourdin’s photography.
“In his glossy netherworld, beauty was extreme, and fantasy was grotesque and sometimes macabre.”
He was the photographer for Charles Jourdan, the shoe company that made the Manolos or Jimmy Choos of the time. Bourdin’s photographs – strange, arresting, sometimes violent images, with deep, saturated colour – were used for its ad campaigns from 1967 to 1981. These images alone give lie to the cliché that the 1970s was the decade style forgot. They hawked shoes but only in the most refracted way, by constructing a world which enticed you, threateningly, to enter – probably not without personal risk.
He worked for Harper’s Bazaar and both Italian and British Vogue; shot ad campaigns for Emmanuel Ungaro, Chanel, Bloomingdale’s, Gianfranco Ferre and Claude Montana; produced calendars for Yashica, Issey Miyake and Pentax.
Always, all of them were Bourdins – an artist’s images made in the heart of the commercial savannah and which presented a consistent, self-constrained vision. That the word Bourdin-like is not part of the international art lexicon can only be put down to his personal disdain for self-promotion.
As careful as he was with his work – planned with evocative pencil sketches – he was careless with his image and heritage. He even wanted his work destroyed after his death.
He was a man better engaged at a distance, via his work. Short, with a whine of a voice, he had a phobia about the colour green. His personal life was complex, unpleasant even. He kept his wife locked up in their apartment, until she hanged herself in 1971. Two of his girlfriends also committed suicide.
There are stories about his cruelty to his model subjects. David Bowie says he’d regularly rip the phone out of the wall – and that one of his photos was a recreation of his wife’s death. He told friends he dreamed of using morgue corpses as models.
It’s hard not to be tempted into psychobiography here, to think of revenge for that maternal abandonment – and his later strained relationship with his adoptive father.
His images play – not always playfully – with the fractious edges of sexuality and violence, not just in their visual style but in their self-apparent and self-dramatising narrative quality. They give the sensation that something has just happened, you don’t know what, and something might happen very soon.
You’ve no idea what that might be either, but chances are it will involve brightly coloured underwear, heads full of long curly hair and legs spread arrestingly wide. Madonna found just what she wanted in Bourdin’s work.
She took it for her ‘Hollywood’ video (2003) and found herself sued. Bourdin died in Paris, on 29 March 1991, aged 62.
For more information visit www.guybourdin.org
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