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Guy Bourdin (1928-1991)

Related: France - fashion photography

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Bourdin emphasised fetishism, power relationships, and the potential for sexual violence, as well as the artificiality of the image, its gloss rather than its reality. --S Charlotte/Verthime Cotton

Guy Bourdin (2006) - Alison M. Gingeras
[FR] [DE] [UK]

Exhibit A: Guy Bourdin (2001) - Luc Sante
[FR] [DE] [UK]


Guy Bourdin (born December 7, 1928 in Paris, died March 29, 1991 in Paris) was one of the best known photographers of fashion and advertising of the second half of the 20th century.

He worked for Vogue magazine from 1955 onwards.

His work for Vogue , together with another Seventies famous fashion photographer, Helmut Newton defied the standards, ideas and theories about fashion photography in general.

Both used strong themes, including themes such as sex,death, violence and fear, to provoke a new way of looking at man in general.

During their working years for Vogue they were given unlimited artistic freedom.

In the last years, Guy Bourdin has been hailed as one of the greatest fashion photographers of all time and his son, Samuel Bourdin, released a book with the finest prints of his father's work, called "Exhibit A".

He has been an influence on many artists, and continues to be so until this very day.

Madonna's 2003 music video for "Hollywood" was greatly influenced by the photography of Bourdin, so much so that a lawsuit was brought on against her by Bourdin's son for copyright infringement.

Amongst others, Nick Knight and David LaChappelle have admitted to be great admirers of his work. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guy_Bourdin [Nov 2006]


Bio: Guy Bourdin was born in 1928 and spent much of his youth living in post-war Paris. An assiduous observer of culture, he showed prcocious artistic talent and fierce ambition. His innovative fashion photographs first appeared in French Vogue in 1954 and he continued to work mainly for the magazine for the next 30 years. His editorial fashion stories and advertising campaigns were of such daring and ingenuity that their impact on visual culture was almost instantaneous. His images have continued to be a source of creativity for many renowned contemporary photogaphers, stylists, art directors and artists. For the opening of the exhibition Nick Knight will create a piece for his website, Showstudio, that is inspired by Bourdin's private cinefilms. --guybourdin.org, accessed Apr 2004

2003-2005 exhibition

The exhibition consists of a series of works : photographs, polaroids, transparencies and films, as originally presented at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in the Spring of 2003. It has been shown in Australia at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne (NGV) and was presented at the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris (24 June - 12 Sept). After the exhibition in Foam (Keizersgracht 609, Amsterdam, 24/09/2004-05/01-2005) it will continue in NRW-Forum Kultur und Wirtschaft in Duesseldorf Duesseldorf (12 Jan.-20 Feb.)

The perverse aestheticization of violence

The perverse aestheticization of violence, however, is Bourdin's most distinctive calling card. He's known for depicting women tied up, compromised—or dead. A black limousine with tinted windows is parked on a city street, the door ajar. A woman's leg dangles out. Mysterious fluid, possibly bodily, is on the sidewalk. Another photo shows a well-coifed woman in profile. A stream of shiny red fluid, obviously alluding to blood, spills from her mouth. It's graphically compelling. But that's only the tip of the iceberg.

Bourdin was clearly familiar with the adrenaline rush that comes the wicked, and also knows that the impulse to gawk at a disaster scene is a little kinky. We shouldn't look, but can't help yearn to. He gives us an image of little girls siting in a bed, their hair crimped, tricked out in Jon Benet Ramsey-style make up, providing a peephole to a world we want to see. It's not that his work condones violence and pedophilia. Rather, he exploits the fact that these things move us. He recognized that the things that turn us on are not always puritanical and politically correct. The niche Bourdin carved out for himself was truly on the cutting edge—exhilaratingly inappropriate and transgressive. Bourdin learned from the Surrealists, who inspired him: the bizarre fascinates us. -- Sara Valdez, http://www.lookonline.com/guybourdin.html [Aug 2004]


In the summer of 1975, leisured American ladies idly leafing through the May issue of Vogue got a nasty little shock. The magazine had published, amid huge controversy, a series of photographs that went beyond the prevailing feminine sexual taboos. Helmut Newton's Story of Ohh shows Lisa Taylor lounging on a sofa legs wide apart, gazing hungrly at a half-naked man. Debrorah Turbeville's Bath House series elicited thoughts of Auschwitz, lesbianism and drugs. And Guy Bourdin's advertisement for Charles Jourdan shoes showed the chalked outline of a woman on an apparently blood spattered pavement, her gorgeous red shoes and red sunglasses abandoned near where her body had fallen. --The Times (UK) 6th Feb 2002

Dead Chic [...]

"He was given carte blanche both at French Vogue and Charles Jourdan," remembers Gaffney. "Total control was in his contract." It's been said that Newton pioneered Porn chic while Bourdin created Dead Chic. Newton's narratives are pristine and provocative; Bourdin's erotic and truly nightmarish. As in Mapplethorpe's work, the best of Bourdin gives off an unmistakable whiff of death. --http://www.artnet.com/magazine/features/caruso/caruso10-12-01.asp [Aug 2004]

National Gallery Victoria

Drop Dead Gorgeous

• Thirteen years after the death of iconic fashion photographer Guy Bourdin, NGV International presents the only exhibition of his work to be seen in Australia.

• NGV’s Deputy Director, Tony Ellwood says “this important exhibition locates Bourdin’s work in the history of fashion photography revealing the distinctive and profound nature of his contribution.”

• The exhibition takes the viewer into Bourdin’s world of 1970s-80s French fashion – seductive, moody and risqué. This was the most successful period in his long career shooting for French Vogue and as the exclusive advertising photographer for Roland k (of Charles Jourdan and later Roland Pierre shoes).

• Renowned for his mysterious, theatrical and ambiguous settings, Bourdin was one of the first fashion photographers to focus on the entire image rather than the product to be promoted. His photographic narratives exploited sexual innuendo, social taboos and allusions to death and violence like nothing previously seen.

Press Release page 2

• “His images fused elegance with the everyday, overlaid with a suggestion of violence and mystery, to the pages of the world’s most sophisticated magazines,” said Susan van Wyk, NGV’s Curator of Photography.

• Bourdin’s photographs remained within the confines of fashion magazines and rarely appeared in the few histories of fashion photography that were being published. As a result there is a distinct gap between what has been written and seen of his work.

• “What Guy Bourdin achieved through his work was to reinvigorate the medium of fashion photography in print. Ironically, his are photographs in which the products are downplayed but our desire for them heightened.”

• “His place today is not only among the greats of fashion photography, but also as a pioneer of a new kind of image-making everywhere,” Ms van Wyk said.

• Bourdin’s world of morbid fantasies built on sex, death, and exquisite shoes will be on display at NGV International from 16 March – 6 June 2004.

• Guy Bourdin is presented by L’Oréal Paris and the L’Oréal Melbourne Fashion Festival, in association with Vogue Australia and Qantas. Admission fees apply. --http://guybourdin.org/tour/tour2.html [Aug 2004]


Reviews - excerpts from magazines about the Guy Bourdin exhibit in the Victoria

... Guy Bourdin's work actually transcended advertising and entered the vernacular. They have the quality of a painting, in that they have layers and they stick in your mind after you've seen them. Even today, 40 years on, there are people aspiring to weak imitations of his work. That's both a sad indictment of our times and a huge compliment to Bourdin ... --Adrian Rossi in Wallpaper, april 2003

... Both his editorial and advertising ventures sought to tinker with the norms of fashion imagery in dramatic new ways. Bourdin staged narratives within his pictures, marked by a fine attention to detail that combined total glamour with an undercurrent of danger, plus erotic pleasure tinged with delicious suspense... --James Anderson in I-D, april 2003.

... In the seventies, alongside Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin created some of the world's most scandalous fashion images. Bourdin's work for French Vogue was chic, disturbing, and often surreal. In his glossy netherworld, beauty was extreme, and fantasy was grotesque and sometimes macabre... --Eviana Hartman in Vogue US, april 2003

Elton John: Yes, I bought twelve Bourdins at Pace McGill three years ago.(...) there are four Bourdins at Woodside (Elton's country retreat in Windsor) and eight in Atlanta. I've got the pussy melting the ice block, and the legs in the bed. His work is incredible. --as inteviewed in Numéro

Helmut Newton [...]

Guy Bourdin's pictures haven't been publicly displayed for twenty years since he didn't want to separate them from their original context for exhibitions or books. Whereas Helmut Newton's pictures for Vogue were stylishly monochrome and sadomasochistically erotic, Bourdin let his glaring and bright colours do the talking. Both Newton and Bourdin have been accused of misogyny. Both photographers competed in trying out the endurance of their models. The images are flooding with fetishistic elements, high-heel shoes, corsets and skin-tight leather outfits. Women twist in doll-like make-up and most curious postures. When one of the models said that his images almost resemble pornography, Bourdin snapped: "Don't make me laugh, this is art." --http://www.phinnweb.com/livingroom/ILikeToWatch/guybourdin/, [Apr 2004]

From Phinnweb

Guy Bourdin (1928-1991) was an obsessed man. And that is to put it slightly. Working for Vogue, he made his heavily made-up models twist to uncomfortable positions in surreal, absurd, gloomy images. He loved red-haired women - who reminded him of his long-lost mother. His estranged wife committed suicide by hanging herself.


The cinematic narrative of Bourdin's images has something reminiscent of Cindy Sherman's photographs. It felt like something had already happened before the picture and would happen even after that. The pictures had certain suspense in them.

Guy Bourdin's reputation was that of a difficult and demanding person, and one of his former models admits that it took a bit masochistic character to be able to work for him.

Hermit-like Bourdin was more into tragedies than happy endings, which could often well be detected from his photographs; even those seemingly most filled with sunshine always had a slightly macabre tone, combining death and glamour. It has been said of Guy Bourdin that he was a complex personality and a gloomy genius who had just chosen a ladies' magazine as his way of expression.

This is what David Bowie's got to say about Bourdin:

"Since the advent of AIDS and the new morality, and, of course his death, his dark sexy fatal style had fallen out of Vogue. An uncompromising photographer, he had found a twisty avenue through desire and death. A white female leg sticking gloomily out of a bath of black liquid enamel. Two glued up babes covered in tiny pearls. The glue prevented their skins from breathing and they pass out. 'Oh it would be beautiful,' he is to have said, 'to photograph them dead in bed.' He was a French Guy. He had known Man Ray. Loved Lewis Carroll. His first gig was doing hats for Vogue. He'd place dead flies or bees on the faces of the models, or, female head wears hat crushed between three skinned calves heads, tongues lolling.

What was this? Fine Arts? The surrealists might even think his work passé. Well, it was the `50s, that's what it was.

The tight-collar `50s seen through unspeakable hostility. He wanted but he couldn't paint. So he threw globs of revengeful hatred at his nubile subjects. He would systematically pull the phone cord out of the wall. He was never to be disturbed. Disturbed. Never. Everything and everyone died around him. One shoot focusing pon a woman lying in bed was said to be a reconstruction of his estranged wife's death. Another picture has a woman in a phone booth making some frantic call. Her hand is pressed whitely against the glass. Behind her and outside are two female bodies partially covered by the autumn leaves. His dream, so he told friends, was to do shoots in the morgue, with the stiffs as mannequins. I don't know. I just read this stuff. Now his spirit was being resurrected. We're mystified by blood. It's our enemy now. We don't understand it. Can't live with it. Can't, well... y'know?"

--http://www.phinnweb.com/livingroom/ILikeToWatch/guybourdin/, [Apr 2004]


  1. Guy Bourdin by S Charlotte/Verthime Cotton (Author), Charlotte Cotton (Editor), Shelly Verthime [Amazon US] [FR] [DE] [UK]
    Charlotte Cotton, Curator of the accompanying exhibition, has curated many successful exhibitions in the V&A's acclaimed Canon Photography Gallery. She is the author of Imperfect Beauty: The Making of Contemporary Fashion Photographs. Shelly Verthime is a cultural historian who works within the world of contemporary fashion in Paris. She conceived, and is external adviser to, this first major exhibition of Guy Bourdin's photographs.

    Guy Bourdin (1928-1991) created the most challenging fashion photography of the late 20th century. Over a 35-year career, including more than three decades creating confrontational images for French Vogue and groundbreaking campaigns for Charles Jourdan footwear, he staged complex dramas, with every gesture and prop carrying a potent psychological charge. He showed us that in the context of fashion it is rarely the product that compels us; it is the image--the seductive narratives of the commercial world, and the quest for the unattainable--that stirs our desires. Today, Bourdin stands as one of the most influential image-makers of all time.

    Bourdin cultivated his anonymity, refusing all proposals for books and exhibitions during his lifetime. This volume, published to coincide with the first major exhibition of his photographs, showcases not only his fashion images but also his brooding landscapes and magical cityscapes. The photographs are accompanied by five specially commissioned essays, which together offer the first thorough analysis of Bourdin's unique creativity. --Book Description

    A book entitled Guy Bourdin has been published by Gallimard in Paris to coincide with this exhibition. This book is the first thorough investigation of Guy Bourdin's compelling visions and includes in-depth essays by Laurence BenaÏm, Rosetta Brooks, Charlotte Cotton, Philippe Garner, and Shelly Verthime. --http://www.culturekiosque.com/calendar/calgen.asp?PageNum=2&Searchtype=category&Category=7 [Aug 2004]

    The essays:

    Sighs & Whispers -- Rosetta Brooks
    Rosetta Brooks was the first writer to fully examine the power and meaning of Guy Bourdin’s fashion photography in her essay of 1981 Sighs and Whispers. Brooks has reflected on, and updated her essay, which analyses Bourdin’s 1976 lingerie catalogue for the Bloomingdale’s department store, for this book.

    Guy Bourdin: The Formative Years -- Philippe Garner
    Bourdin had a precocious talent and a focussed ambition. This essay from photo historian Philippe Garner draws together the range of the social and cultural influences and motivations that shaped his work. It places the young Bourdin in the post-war climate of Paris and defines the ideas and formal devices that Bourdin would explore throughout his life.

    The Falsity of an image -- Charlotte Cotton
    This essay, by the curator of the exhibition, looks at an advertisement for Charles Jourdan published in fashion magazines in 1975. By concentrating on one image, Charlotte Cotton reveals the layers of reference and of meaning that Bourdin would activate in the context of fashion imagery and how this changed commercial imagery forever.

    Searching for the infinite -- Laurence Benaim
    Writer, Laurence Benaim looks at the significance that written text played in Bourdin’s creativity, bringing together a collage of his private universe. A sense of the literature that inspired him, Bourdin’s own poetic writings and the use of text within his photographs from Baudelaire to Japanese Haiku.

    Instantaneous Poetry: The Polaroids of Guy Bourdin -- Shelly Verthime
    The external adviser for Guy Bourdin, Shelly Verthime’s piece is a personal exploration of an, until now, unseen aspect of Guy Bourdin’s photography. Bourdin used a polaroid camera to create ambiguous but compelling observations of the world. Verthime analyses the possible meanings of these abstracted landscapes and cityscapes to show us the most dominant formal devices that Bourdin used throughout his life.

    Designed by leading art director, Stephen Wolstenholme, quarter-bound in cloth with a stunning paper laminated cover, and containing previously unpublished images and others not seen for over twenty-five years, as well as a comprehensive bibliography and chronology compiled by Pjerpol Rubens, this book is set to become the defining work on Guy Bourdin.

    About the Editors

    Shelly Verthime is a cultural historian and also a creative within the world of contemporary fashion in Paris. She conceived, and is external adviser to, this first major exhibition of Guy Bourdin’s work.

    Charlotte Cotton is the Curator of the Guy Bourdin exhibition and has curated many successful exhibitions in the V&A’s acclaimed Canon Photography Gallery. She is the author of Imperfect Beauty, The Making of Contemporary Fashion Photographs (V&A Publications, 2000) --guybourdin.org, [Aug 2004]

    Exhibit A: Guy Bourdin (2001) - Luc Sante

    Guy Bourdin's surreal and erotic imagery filled the pages of international fashion magazines in the 1970s. His revolutionary ad campaign for Charles Jourdan shoes fascinated readers with photographs as provocative and edgy today as they were almost three decades ago. Bourdin's influence on modern photography is sweeping and far-reaching-yet he died in 1991 without ever having published a collection of his work. Now his son, Samuel Bourdin, working with creative director Fernando Delgado, has created this gorgeous overview of some of the finest images from his father's legacy. The powerful images are accompanied by a foreword by writer and critic Luc Sante, and a biographical essay by Michel Guerrin, photography critic of Le Monde.

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