Tuesday, 10 March 2015

'Guy Bourdin: Image Maker' at Somerset House

Charles Jourdan, Spring 1979 © The Guy Bourdin Estate, 2014/Courtesy A+C

Guy Bourdin: Image Maker has entered its final week at Somerset House and if you love fashion photography this is one exhibition you don't want to miss. Frequently hailed as one of the greatest fashion photographers of all time, this protégé of the great Man Ray was certainly one of the most fascinating.

The exhibition features over 200 works, including previously unseen material from Bourdin's estate. Exhibition prints, layouts, polaroids, contact sheets, transparencies, paintings, sketches, notebooks and even film, are combined to offer a comprehensive look at the work of one of the 20th century's most iconic photographers.

Alongside Helmut Newton, Bourdin's work graced the pages of French Vogue for several decades, heavily influencing the generations of fashion photographers who would follow in his footsteps. Bourdin was formerly a painter and his photography skills were entirely self-taught, allowing a freedom when shooting fashion products that perhaps explains how he took the genre and turned it on its head. Where the product and its promotion were previously at the heart of fashion photography, for Bourdin they were of less importance than his own vision and the image as a whole.

Bourdin created something new. His photographs were amongst the first to capture a brief moment of a more complex narrative, then place the product within that moment. These narratives range from the provocative and glamorous to the surreal and mysterious. The most memorable are dark and disturbing, often hinting at something sexual and violent. The women in his images frequently appear to be dead or injured, resulting in criticism and claims that he objectified women.

Pentax Calendar, 1980 © The Guy Bourdin Estate, 2014/Courtesy A+C

French fashion designer Charles Jourdan worked with Bourdin on his advertising campaigns for many years, and it is some these images (and an accompanying film), that you see first when you enter the exhibition. In 1979 Bourdin shot a campaign called 'Walking Legs', which entailed driving around quintessentially English landscapes and shooting Jourdan's shoes on two mannequin legs in various poses. It is incredible how just the lower legs and shoes can hint at a much bigger story, allowing the viewer to interpret each image in their own way. It is also interesting to see how well Jourdan's designs have withstood the test of time. In some images the quintessentially seventies cars in the background look as dated as you would expect, while the shoes have lost none of their appeal!

Charles Jourdan, Autumn 1979 © The Guy Bourdin Estate, 2014/Courtesy A+C

Bourdin was a perfectionist and subsequently he was heavily involved in his layouts for French Vogue. It speaks volumes of the regard in which he was held that the editors allowed him to see his work through from conception to completion in the magazine. Despite his strong vision and need for editorial control, it is interesting that he had little desire to preserve his work, even reportedly once requesting that it all be destroyed upon his death. He rejected the Grand Prix National de la Photographie and refused various exhibition and book offers. The first book of his work wasn't published until a decade after his death.

Vogue Paris, May 1970 © The Guy Bourdin Estate, 2014/Courtesy A+C

It is Bourdin's unwavering vision and limitless creativity that makes his work so appealing and memorable. He was an artist and a storyteller and the reason that he succeeded in fashion photography is because his stories were strong enough to sell products. Most impressive is the fact that he was successful in this field despite an apparent disregard for conventional notions of beauty, good taste and the traditional portrayal of products.

Many of the images in the exhibition are difficult to decode and open to personal interpretation. It is impossible to view Bourdin's work without attempting to fill in the blanks, asking 'who is the girl in the picture and what is her story?' These images are compelling; some are overwhelming in their beauty, while others they are so uncomfortable that you have to walk away.

Bourdin has inspired many of today's great fashion photographers including my personal favourite, Tim Walker, whose images are equally fuelled by stories that take priority over the product being sold. However if viewing Walker's most memorable work feels like you are entering a dreamland, Bourdin's feels more like a nightmare. Dark, foreboding yet equally impossible to forget.

Charles Jourdan, Autumn 1970 © The Guy Bourdin Estate, 2014/Courtesy A+C

See Guy Bourdin: Image Maker at the Embankment Galleries, Somerset House, until Sunday 15th March. £9, daily 10.00-18-00 (last admission 17.15) and until 21.00 Thursday (last admission 20.15). For more information and tickets visit www.somersethouse.org.uk

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