When you visit the new Guy Bourdin exhibition at Somerset House in London, the thing that strikes you is all the legs. In 1979 Bourdin was commissioned by Charles Jourdan to shoot its footwear ad campaign. He bought a pair of mannequin legs, threw them into the back of a Cadillac and drove around Britain, photographing the legs—adorned with their glamorous shoes—against quintessential English backdrops: crossing a cobbled lane, waiting for a train, striding past stucco-fronted houses. The images have a mysterious quality. What does the woman look like? What is she thinking? Where is she? Bourdin redefined fashion photography by prizing the image over the product. These aren't just adverts, they're works of art.
There are more than 100 photographs in this remarkable retrospective: further Charles Jourdan campaigns, several spreads for French Vogue beginning in the 1950s, and many unpublished works. The other thing that strikes you is how cohesive it is, for a body of work that spans three decades. His on-location shots have a realist, urban aesthetic, while his stylised studio shots pop with colour. Bottle green with scarlet red is a favourite combination. There is plenty of flesh, but it’s seductive and intriguing rather than erotic. The bodies are reduced to limbs, or contorted into unusual shapes, and the models’ faces are often obscured, rarely making eye contact. Some are cheeky, like the stockinged-and-stilettoed woman burrowing through a hole in a yellow wall, but many have a darkness, a combined fascination with glamour and death, like the naked made-up model lying face-down on the floor with a slick of red easing from her mouth. Bourdin drew on surrealism—following his early years working under Man Ray—and Hitchcockian storytelling, often playing on suspense with carefully placed MacGuffins.
For each image Bourdin had a vision, and he was meticulous. Trained as an artist, he would sketch the composition of each image long before he began clicking his camera—the gridded pages of his notebooks, alive with pencil drawings, reveal his talent for draftsmanship. On a shoot he demanded complete artistic control, from the set and props to the model’s hair and make-up. Despite his precious approach to his work Bourdin never made efforts to promote it in his lifetime—he didn't publish a book and rarely held exhibitions—which makes this one, with its many unseen works from the Guy Bourdin Archive, all the more welcome.
Guy Bourdin: Image-Maker is at Somerset House in London until March 15th