Guy Bourdin: Image-Maker at Somerset House

2nd February 2015

Guy Bourdin's original dark and sexually charged photography works can be distinctively placed between the ‘summer of love' and the Hitchcock era. Since then it has been countlessly imitated through editorials and pop culture, but nothing comes quite as close to the real thing.
Lucky for us the real thing has made home at Somerset House, staging the biggest exhibition to date of Bourdin's original works and featuring over 100 pieces plus previously unseen material from the photographer’s estate ranging from 1955 to 1987.

This major show charts Bourdin’s distinguished 40-year career from Man Ray’s protégé to photography revolutionary in his own right and explore his pursuit of perfection.

While his medium was the magazine and the billboard, Bourdin took a rigorous and avant-garde approach to his commissioned spreads and campaigns and without compromise, he demanded complete artistic control over them, including the hair and make up of the models. To magazine picture desks, he would only submit one negative for each image and would indicate its precise placement on the page. Yet such was his talent and their trust in him, these conditions were granted time and time again by fashion magazines and houses, most notably by the French shoe designer Charles Jourdan and Vogue Paris, with whom he enjoyed a long-standing collaboration.

Unlike his contemporaries such as Helmut Newton or Richard Avedon, Bourdin never took measures to immortalise his work. In his lifetime, he never published a book, he never hosted an exhibition of his colour photography, and he rejected the Grand Prix National de la Photographie from the French government. American curator and collector Sam Wagstaff once sent an open cheque to Bourdin and asked him to fill out the amount, but it was returned ripped up into pieces. Bourdin, like many of his peers, did not believe that a photography market would develop to encompass his commercial work, so he placed little emphasis on promoting it after publication.

Curated by Alistair O’Neill with Shelly Verthime, the exhibition includes over 100 colour exhibition prints of Bourdin’s most significant works, as well as early and late works in black and white that serve to challenge Bourdin’s reputation as a colour photographer. This is complimented by a range of other photographic materials: unique Polaroid test shots, doublepage spread layouts, contact sheets and transparencies marked for composition. Together they explore Bourdin’s craftsmanship as an image-maker and the processes involved in producing startling and provocative imagery in a pre-digital age. It also highlights Bourdin as a pioneer of fashion film, showcasing a range of Super-8 films he made at the same time as his on-location photo shoots.

Our favourite works include ‘Walking Legs’ – a Charles Jourdan campaign series – shot in 1979, the French designer and photographer used quintessentially English landscapes as the backdrop to its high-end campaign. Accompanied by his wife, son, his assistant and several pairs of mannequin legs, Guy Bourdin embarked on a road trip around the UK (in a black Cadillac no less), and documented the campaign series from London to Brighton. As with much of Bourdin’s work, the model is mysteriously absent – all that is left is a pair of mannequin legs, adorned with Charles Jourdan’s creations. Though only a small sample of the series has ever been seen, the work stands as a series of 22 photographs and is shown in its entirety for the first time.

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