LONDON — Guy Bourdin — a virtuoso who shunned the spotlight, an aesthete who embraced the grotesque, a fashion photographer who believed that product was always secondary to the image. Later this week, Somerset House will showcase the photographer’s lavish, off-kilter world with a major exhibition of work called “Guy Bourdin: Image-Maker.”
The show comes more than a decade after the Victoria & Albert Museum exhibited 34 prints by the maverick French photographer and a protégé of May Ray, who died in 1991. On display for the first time are photographs of Bourdin’s “Walking Legs,” a series of images for Charles Jourdan — created long before Photoshop — showing elegant disembodied legs strolling along various streets, train platforms, hotel rooms and gardens across Britain.
It also features Bourdin’s grainy, Super-8 films of models during shoots; his work-in-progress paintings that reveal an obsession with geometry and balance, and the myriad images he shot for French Vogue and Jourdan, two of his great champions.
Had it been up to Bourdin himself, this show would never have taken place. Although famous for his stubborn, controlling, perfectionist tendencies, Bourdin never sought fame. He never published a book of his work or hosted an exhibition of his color photography. He rejected the Grand Prix National de la Photographie from the French government, and ripped up a blank check sent to him by the American curator and collector Sam Wagstaff.
His legacy, however, survives and much of the works on display at Somerset House are recently released images from his archive. “He made seemingly impossible images in a pre-digital age, and despite all the time and perseverance, they look effortless,” said Alistair O’Neill, during a walk-through of the show that opens Thursday and runs through March 15.
O’Neill, who co-curated the show with Shelly Verthime, said it offers “an expanded definition of Bourdin, as an image-maker more than a fashion photographer,” and seeks to underline just how he created his images.
Indeed, the show is as much about Bourdin’s process as anything else: His unfinished paintings — inspired by the likes of Balthus and Edward Hopper — have geometric lines drawn on them in various places, demonstrating how carefully Bourdin balanced his images. His landscape-format fashion photographs were shot precisely to fit onto a double-page spread.
Such was the control that he exerted over his images — and the way they were laid out in magazines – that he would famously submit one negative for each image to the picture desk, and dictate its precise placement on the page. Pure joy, no doubt, for the title’s art director.
This was a man so obsessed with detail that he would take a magnifying glass to gaze at paintings in a museum, and so fixated on visual narratives that he would pore over film frame books page by page. Verthime said Bourdin would spend countless hours on models’ body makeup and hair just to achieve the right look for a still life photo. Bourdin loved the power of makeup, and François Nars has long been a fan. Nars Cosmetics is the exhibition’s sponsor.
While there are so many high points to the show — the lineup of black, spidery models’ legs in Jourdan shoes; limbs decked in colored tights stacked on a railroad track. and the proliferation of long fingers, their nails slicked with red polish — the images of the cropped mannequin legs are the most riveting.
Shot in 1979 during a tour of Britain in a black Cadillac, the graceful images look to a 2014 audience as if the model’s body has been magicked away with the swipe of a mouse. Instead, the effect was created by Bourdin, his assistant, and a suitcase of Jourdan shoes.
O’Neill said that due precisely to the sophistication of the modern eye, and to the visual tricks it has become accustomed to, the perception of Bourdin is evolving. “When the V&A staged its show in 2003, he was considered a cult figure, a photographer’s photographer,” said O’Neill. “But he’s better understood today because of the work that’s been done since then. His photos have a timeless quality and modernity. His work is a notable part of visual culture — he wasn’t just a fashion photographer.”