Guy Bourdin (2 December 1928 – 29 March 1991), was a French artist and fashion photographer known for his provocative images. From 1955, Bourdin worked mostly with Vogue as well as other publications including Harper’s Bazaar. He shot ad campaigns for Chanel, Charles Jourdan, Pentax and Bloomingdale’s.
His work is collected by important institutions including Tate in London, MoMA, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Getty Museum. The first retrospective exhibition of his work was held at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London in 2003, and then toured the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, and the Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris. The Tate is permanently exhibiting a part of its collection (one of the largest) with works made between 1950 and 1955.
He is considered as one of the best known photographers of fashion and advertising of the second half of the 20th century. He set the stage for a new kind of fashion photography. “While conventional fashion images make beauty and clothing their central elements, Bourdin’s photographs offer a radical alternative.”
Bourdin was born 2 December 1928 in Paris, France. His parents separated when he was an infant and he was sent to live with his paternal grandparents who owned a house in Normandy. His grandparents were also owners of a restaurant in Paris called Brasserie Bourdin. When his father, who was only 18 at the time of his birth, remarried, Bourdin was again under his care. Apparently Bourdin only saw his mother once when she arrived at the Brasserie to present him with a gift. Thereafter, his only communication with his mother took place in the side-by-side phone booths of the Brasserie where his participation would be ensured by a locked door. At the age of eighteen Bourdin embarked on a cycling tour in Provence during which he met art-dealer Lucien Henry. Bourdin passed six months living at Henry’s house where he concentrated on painting and drawing until it was time for his mandatory military service.
Bourdin was first introduced to photography during his service in the Air Force. Stationed in Dakar (1948–49), Bourdin received his initial photographic training, working as an aerial photographer. When he returned to Paris after his service, he supported himself with a number of menial jobs, including as a salesman of camera lenses and also continued to paint, draw and take pictures. During this time he exhibited some of his drawings and in 1950 sought out the mentorship of American expatriate and prodigious Surrealist Man Ray. Bourdin was turned away from Man Ray’s door six times by his wife and on the seventh finally succeeding in gaining the artist’s company when Man Ray himself answered the door and invited Bourdin in. Bourdin had indeed succeeded in gaining the confidence of Man Ray, who later wrote the catalogue for Bourdin’s first exhibition in 1952 after accepting him as a protégé.
Bourdin made his first exhibition of drawings and paintings at Galerie, Rue de la Bourgogne, Paris. His first photographic exhibition was in 1953. He exhibited under the pseudonym “Edwin Hallan” in his early career. His first fashion shots were published in the February 1955 issue of Vogue Paris. As a contemporary of Helmut Newton, who also worked extensively for Vogue, Bourdin helped establish what contemporary photography is today. Newton observed, “Between him and me the magazine became pretty irresistible in many ways and we complemented each other. If he had been alone or I had been alone it wouldn’t have worked.” He continued to work for the magazine until 1987.
An editor of Vogue magazine introduced Bourdin to shoe designer Charles Jourdan, who became his patron, and Bourdin shot Jourdan’s ad campaigns between 1967 and 1981. His quirky anthropomorphic compositions, intricate mise en scene ads were recognised as distinctly Bourdin-esque and were always eagerly anticipated by the media.
In 1985, Bourdin turned down the Grand Prix National de la Photographie, awarded by the French Ministry of Culture, but his name is retained on the list of award winners. He died of cancer in 1991. According to Manolo Blahnik, Bourdin’s creative legacy is so immense that his shoes will never be filled by another.
Guy Bourdin was among the first to imagine fashion photographies that contained fascinating narratives, dramatic effects with intense color saturation, hyper-realism and cropped compositions while he established the idea that the product is secondary to the image.
Bourdin’s photographs are often richly sensual but also rely heavily on provocation and ability to shock. Bourdin configured a whole new visual vocabulary with which to associate the goods of haute-couture. The narratives were strange and mysterious, inspired by literature, cinema and art history. Evident through astute reading of his compositional and thematic presentation, Bourdin profited from the influence of a diverse collection of contemporaries: first and foremost, his mentor Man Ray, but also the photographer Edward Weston, surrealist painters Magritte and Balthus, and Spanish surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel.