I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Deathly Stills: The Dark Dark World of Guy Bourdin

by Jessie Brown
April 3, 2018

Flick through any glossy fashion magazine today and more-than-likely, you’ll be faced with the legacy of Guy Bourdin. This maverick French photographer was no stranger to controversy both in his work and private life, and he singlehandedly changed the face of fashion advertising due to his uncompromising and highly innovative style.

Working for French Vogue from 1955 to 1987 where he was given complete editorial control of his work, Bourdin developed his own unique style that would forever more shift the benchmark for fashion photography. As a protégé of Man Ray and a fan of the surrealists, Bourdin irrevocably altered what commercial photography was capable of through hinting at a hidden narrative behind each image rather than merely focusing on the product within it. When looking at a Bourdin photograph, you’re made to feel that you’ve stumbled into a scene that’s part of a much bigger story. More often than not, this story is likely to be simultaneously erotic and morbid. Death and an undercurrent of violence were common motifs whilst the perfect positioning of everything within the shot was no doubt done with the intention of making the shot as highly charged as possible.

Some of Bourdin’s photographs include a beautiful highly made-up model face down in a pool of blood or lying still next to a live power point as if electrocuted. Other images depict a lone pair of legs emerging from a wall or a couple of anonymous bikini-clad women undressing in a bathroom in front of a sink full of stilettos. In each of these, colours are bold, lines are sharp and the surrealism meter has gone through the roof.

You get the feeling with Guy Bourdin that David Lynch was taking notes. Certainly Bourdin’s influence can be seen in much contemporary fashion photography. The naked Sophie Dahl in the Yves Saint Laurent Opium ad was a direct homage to Bourdin whilst modern-day artists Gregory Crewdson and Matthew Barney owe much to his narrative and hyper-stylised approach. His influence extends beyond the photography and art world too; Madonna had to agree to an out-of-court settlement with the Bourdin estate after much of her video for ‘Hollywood’ directly ripped off Bourdin.

Much has been made of Bourdin’s personal life, which was turbulent to say the least, and it’s difficult not to draw some kind of psychoanalytical conclusions about his work based on his personal experiences. Abandoned by his mother when he was a child; he only remembered her as a pale redhead, of which many feature in his work. Death played a prominent part in his adult life, one of his wives committed suicide, another attempted it whilst another two died. No doubt he was a dark character, it was said that he trapped his wives indoors refusing to let them see anyone or the outside world.

This cruelty extended into his professional life as well, with his supposed treatment of his models bordering on sadistic at times. It’s claimed that he often handcuffed them, bandaged them, hung them from ceilings, until they cried. In one instance, he insisted his models walk across a plank suspended above a floor of rats to get to the bathroom whilst another infamous story reveals that he once covered two of his models head to toe in glue before encrusting them with black jewels, resulting in both women blacking out as their skin wasn’t able to breath. When he was warned that the women could die as a result of this treatment, Bourdin famously declared: “that would be beautiful.”

Given his treatment of women in his personal and professional life and the controversial nature of his photographs, it would be fitting to assume that Bourdin was some kind of embittered misogynist hell-bent on demeaning women in his works. Yet, taking a look at some of his films, a rather different story is told. There’s the same motifs as in his photography, dreamy surreal sequences and a focus on abstract body parts, but without the violence that’s often central to his photographs.

In footage shot by Bourdin whilst on a stills photoshoot for Vogue in 1974, two models dressed as geishas are shown testing out various poses by the ocean, there’s an intensity to the footage but it’s not disparaging of the women in the shot. Rather, you get the feeling that Bourdin was admiring them from a distance. The same can be said of the footage of the female model who’s shown sitting astride a chair moving in slow motion or the couple depicted spinning around and laughing for the camera or the out-of-focus close-up of a woman’s face. These aren’t misogynistic in tone but rather reverential and otherworldly. This ties in with something Manolo Blahnik, who was an acquaintance and fan of his, has claimed about him: “People say he was a misogynist, and I'm not sure what they mean. Bourdin loved - no, adored - women. If anything, he was more of a misanthrope, seeing himself as a poète damné, in the grand tradition of French poets from Mallarmé onwards.”

Whatever his personal demons, it can’t be denied that Bourdin was shamelessly honest about the nature of his work. Though he could most definitely be considered an artist he had no desire to cross over into the art world despite numerous offers of exhibitions and publishing deals, resolutely sticking to advertising instead. What was the art world’s loss was Vogue’s gain, as he remained dedicated to the magazine throughout his career. In one final rebellious move, Bourdin insisted that all of his work be destroyed after his death. Thankfully this didn’t happen allowing Bourdin’s impact to continue to be felt across the art, fashion and advertising worlds today.

Jessie Brown is an east London refugee currently residing in Berlin.  At any given moment she is likely to be planning for, experiencing or writing about music festivals, clubbing, or travelling. She enjoys flea markets and gets overly-enthusiastic about obscure techno records.