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Guy Bourdin: Portrait of an Artist

Nearly 15 years after his death and about 30 years after much of his work was shot, Guy Bourdin seems to be getting his due through an exhibition.

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NEW YORK — Nearly 15 years after his death and about 30 years after much of his work was shot, Guy Bourdin seems to be getting his due through an exhibition, a two-volume book packed with never-before-seen images and a new home of sorts at Phillips de Pury & Company.

The photographer’s muse, Nicolle Meyer, gives an insider’s view writing in “Guy Bourdin, A Message For You,” newly published by Steidldangin. Those images can also be seen at Phillips’ downtown gallery through Saturday. After an eight-year run at the Pace MacGill Gallery, Samuel Bourdin, the late lensman’s son and sole owner of his estate, has pulled up stakes in favor of Phillips. Of his decision to switch camps to the auction house, which will exclusively sell Guy Bourdin prints, Bourdin said, “I need someone to really have faith in my father’s work. I think it’s time he got some recognition. It’s good to change sometimes. I’m very happy about the decision.”

Peter MacGill of Pace MacGill said, “We served a purpose over a period of time of which I’m proud. In today’s art world, sometimes it’s a very positive thing that these things be done in steps and stages. This is an example of that.”

Like other Guy Bourdin aficionados, Bourdin’s son takes issue with how the controversial photographer was misunderstood by the media. “He never socialized, so they made him out to be this weird creature who was hidden away. They had to make up stories,” he said. “I want people to see his work because that’s what he did all his life — work.”

Work, he did, though some argue that his risqué shots bordered on the misogynistic or pornographic. Steidldangin’s release of the book doesn’t exactly diminish that eyebrow-raising reputation. Most of the shots feature Bourdin’s muse, Meyer, heavy on the lipstick, skimpy on the clothing and often in compromising positions. The book’s title, for example, borrows from a photo of an envelope stamped with that saying and an image of Meyer’s lower half squatting in a leotard, sheers and high heels.

But the book’s editor, Shelly Verthime, who conceived the idea of having the first retrospective of Bourdin’s work at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in 2003, noted that he painted and sketched all his life, and used photography as a stage. He was so fastidious that he often built elaborate sets for one-day shoots. For a shot of Meyer dolled up as a sexy salesgirl on a ladder, he built monochromatic white shelves stacked with 500 white shoeboxes and barked, “Maintenant,” “now” in French, to catch her dropping a shoebox.

This story first appeared in the March 24, 2006 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Perhaps what troubles people most is the unfinished story — the one constant in his work. “He doesn’t give you a final answer,” said Verthime. “He gives signs but the viewer has to decide what happens. In a way, I find him very challenging. He’s diving into viewers’ minds and emotions.

“The major problem was the misconception of his work. In the last 15 years, most of the media focused on his private life and the tragedies he experienced. Not many journalists tried to analyze the work for the image that was there,” she added. “With his work for Charles Jourdan, the image became primary and the object became secondary. To look at his images, you have to look at them as a whole…to see the composition, the high ground, the low sky.”

An artist at heart, Bourdin spent days upon end in museums throughout his life and in the Fifties was known to take a magnifying glass to examine techniques. His house was stocked with 2,000 books about art philosophy and art, with the ever-complicated Francis Bacon and Man Ray being favorite subjects. Pretty industrious for a guy who got his first taste of photography training while stationed in Dakar, Senegal, for the French Air Force. His first exhibition of paintings and drawings was staged in 1950 — five years before his first fashion photographs were published in French Vogue. Over time, in addition to his editorial work, he shot campaigns for clients such as Jourdan, Calvin Klein, Bloomingdale’s and Pentax. Bourdin died in March 1991.

From time to time, Bourdin would go to Normandy for two months or longer solely for the purpose of painting. Even when his photography career took off, he was never without a notebook and would feverishly jot down ideas and sketches “as if he was in a hurry to capture one idea before a new one floated in,” Meyer wrote in the book.

Aside from keeping himself immersed in the art world, “at the same time he was aware of what was going on in real life,” Verthime said. In 1977, after seeing Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Bourdin replicated the feel of that film in a photograph, a practice that had not become second nature to photographers. “He was like a voyeur absorbing what was around him. He always had a surreal and sharp sense of humor and his view of photography was interpretative,” Verthime said.

To some extent fashion photography was just a paycheck, according to Bourdin’s son. “All his life fashion photography was just a means to be creative and for his work to be seen. I don’t think he ever wanted to be a fashion photographer. For him, it wasn’t about money, success, fame or anything. It’s a commercial medium. It gave him a means to do other things.”

In “A Message For You,” Meyer recalls a two-month tear in 1977 across the U.S. in a pick-up truck with Bourdin and his band of weary workers, who eventually landed in the then unquestionably unglamorous Miami. But the road trip gave him a chance to capture the Americana he loved so much — leggy women, Cadillacs, cowboy boots, bandanas and ten-gallon hats. The photographer would peer through a director’s viewfinder strung around his neck, according to Meyer. Even when day after day of inclement weather burned Bourdin’s fuse, “Guy never fell into the facility of just clicking away,” she said.

Phillips de Pury chairman Simon de Pury said, “It’s amazing to think these works were done in the 1970s. There’s a timelessness to them. They are still fresh and they have had a huge influence on the current generation of artists. He also had quite a bit of influence on commercial photography.”

De Pury has been a Bourdin fan since he was a teenager rifling through the pages of French Vogue. “Every time an image hit my imagination it was either by Guy Bourdin or Helmut Newton,” and now Phillips de Pury represents both, he said.

Alber Elbaz is also an admirer of Bourdin’s work. In his forward for “A Message For You,” the designer likens a photographer taking a Polaroid picture in the studio to a designer looking at the reflection of a dress in the mirror of the atelier. “We both check colors, proportions and details searching for the truth through which we try to find ourselves.”

Elbaz continued, “The motion and the emotion are in each image and need no words to describe them.”

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