Essay: Guy Bourdin (1928-91)

by Christabel Stewart on 17 April 2003

Curator Christabel Stewart unpicks Guy Bourdin’s radical approach to photography.

Curator Christabel Stewart unpicks Guy Bourdin’s radical approach to photography.

Still from Lipstick (2002) a fashion film made from Guy Bourdin's archive footage

Guy Bourdin was a groundbreaking image-maker who had a profoundly influential impact on fashion photography. His fashion editorial and advertising was published principally in French Vogue from the mid-1950s through to the late 1980s, where it had its greatest impact in the decade of the 1970s. Born in 1928 in Paris, Bourdin grew up in an age of intense cultural anxiety, precipitated by the uncertainties and disruption of the wartime occupation of France, and the subsequent challenge to human rationality typified by the philosophies of Existentialism. His early inspiration was from Surrealism, and specifically the work of Man Ray, with whom he struck up a relationship, the Surrealist whose vision had reconfigured notions of what a photograph might be.

The art Bourdin made without his camera enjoyed a modest success, with exhibitions in Paris and New York, but it was in his experiments with the camera, which he first brought to Vogue in 1954, that he excelled. Bourdin rejected the descriptive roles of photography in favour of an exploration of the medium's capacity for the divergent. In the practice of certain American photographers, notably Edward Weston, Bourdin recognised a concern with formal perfection and extremely high finish that became his own objective, one perfectly adapted to the deceptive sophistication of fashion imagery, the terrain in which he developed his ideas for over thirty years.

At French Vogue, Bourdin demanded and was allowed unique editorial control - and amazingly, he extended this to his principal client in advertising, shoe company Charles Jourdan, who first commissioned him in the 1960s.

Bourdin's approach to campaigns reflected a distinct change for advertising in this period. Where it had once been dominated by selling the intangibles of class, alongside the merchandise, Bourdin rejected the 'product shot' in favour of atmospheric tableaux and suggestions of narrative.

Bourdin was not alone in demystifying the object, but he was the most radical in his approach. The photographs of Guy Bourdin and contemporaries such as Helmut Newton, proved that advertising need not be an elaboration of a safe, prescribed fantasy. Bourdin emphasised fetishism, power relationships, and the potential for sexual violence, as well as the artificiality of the image, its gloss rather than its reality.

Bourdin's success at exposing the contrivance of fashion imagery precipitated this becoming a mainstream rhetorical manoeuvre within mass-circulation magazines, but the unique preserve of his images was to refuse to explain themselves, despite their formal sharpness and clarity. Their enduring strength lies in their beguiling potential to intrigue and disturb.

Editorial Direction:
Pierpol Rubens
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