Some might say there’s been no lack of exhibits on the work of legendary photographer Guy Bourdin, who was born in 1928 and passed away in 1991: 30 worldwide since 2003, including a comprehensive 2013 show in Hamburg’s Deichtorhallen that also touched on his surrealist paintings. Nor is he absent on the printed page, with any number of books, large and small, dedicated to his riveting images. And yet the current show, “Guy Bourdin: Image Maker” at Berlin’s Helmut Newton Foundation and the accompanying 260-page tome of the same name from Assouline approaches Bourdin’s oeuvre from many new and intriguing vantage points.
For the first, “Image Maker,” which shares the museum’s main space with “Helmut Newton. A Gun for Hire” finds Bourdin and his equally provocative fashion photography colleague Newton engaged in a dialogue they never had. For they’d never met, despite the proximity of their studios, or their extensive work in the Seventies for French Vogue and often the same fashion clients such as Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent.
“It’s overwhelming to have these two masters, these titans who changed the fashion scene of photography dialoguing on the walls,“ commented Shelly Verthime, curator of the Guy Bourdin Estate and the power behind multiple Bourdin books. “For beyond the differences — I mean when you see Newton, you know it’s Newton, and Bourdin is clearly Bourdin, you also see the impact both had by pushing the limits and not compromising.”
Bourdin and Newton were also meticulous in terms of preparing — and taking — their iconic shots. However, as photography and design expert Philippe Garner noted at the shows’ press conference Thursday, “Guy [Bourdin] preconceived his images more completely and precisely than Newton. Newton loved to work on location, and liked the unexpected too, and so might use a passerby. Guy was an artist and had an extravagant imagination. He had the ability to visualize a picture in his head, and so much was drawn from that. His was a more painterly world. Helmut was more of an observer,” Garner continued. “Somewhere Helmut said ‘I don’t photograph what I see, but what I’ve seen.’ And then he’d file it in his memory bank or his notebooks, and then distill it.”
As for the current Berlin Bourdin show and Assouline book, “Image Maker” divides Boudin’s oeuvre into three segments: director, surrealist and image maker. Bourdin was a storyteller, a surreal narrator of mysterious dramas which broke moral conventions and paid little heed to standards of beauty. He was also a master of composition, the king of the double spread or centerfold who scrupulously art-directed every image. He was the only photographer, Verthime told WWD, who was allowed to give only one negative to the art director, though one wonders where his dark and surrealist sense of humor would have gotten these days. “Most pictures we see here wouldn’t get published today,” she suggested.
He enjoyed real freedom of expression in his 15 year ad-making collaboration with Charles Jourdan, which produced some of his most well-known photographs. The 1978 shot of two Jourdan clad feet lined up under a plane in flight “took a week to shoot in Orly. There was no digital interference to set the grid,” explained Verthime. And never was, no matter how extreme the shooting situation might be, or unimaginable the image. As surreal as things got, what we see was real.
“He wanted the emotion. If there were fish, the fish had to be fresh. In a perfume shot, even if the photo was going to be cut at the [model’s] waist, she had to be fully dressed because she would feel the difference. He went all the way with everything…”
The same held for his work with French Vogue. “It was a different climate [in the Seventies],” suggested Garner. “There was really much more editorial freedom, and Francine Crescent recognized talent and could give that talent room to express themselves. It was important for both [Newton and Bourdin] to have a big audience and a magazine page was the way to do that. It’s hard to imagine now when we’re bombarded with images the power of the magazine page.”
Known for his bold use of color, half of Bourdin’s work was in black and white, and for the first time, the Berlin show presents some of his earliest black-and-white images from the Fifties. Verthime accidentally came across them in an old Kodak box, filled with envelopes of maquettes, the images already cropped and laid out and conceived as an exhibition series. “You can see how he’s already creating stories, and also his interest in shoes from early on.”
Not that shoes, even for the Charles Jourdan campaigns, were the primary focus, but rather composition, color, light and shadow, she pointed out.
Bourdin also made films, and British director Mike Figgis was the recipient of another magic box, filled with “photographs, Polaroids, envelopes and USB sticks filled with hours upon hours of footage partially edited by Shelly [Verthime]. She said go for it.” He did, adding “the beauty of making a film of someone’s visual work you love is that you get to curate the images as you want.” The resulting 18-minute film, with music by pianist Rosey Chan, further captures Bourdin’s lifelong fascination and play with light, reflections, surreal impossibilities, real and contrived.
Last but not least, June’s room at the Helmut Newton Foundation is featuring “Another Story” by Newton’s former assistant Angelo Marino. Taking a photo on his iPhone five days a week from 8 to 10 a.m. on the way from his home in Cannes to his workplace in Monte Carlo, which he posted on Instagram daily by 10 a.m., this exhibit now takes them out of the virtual into the physical world.
The three shows open to the public Friday, Dec. 1 and run through May 13.