6 February 2016


Guy Bourdin for Charles Jourdan, Spring 1978.

Guy Bourdin for Charles Jourdan, Spring 1975.

They are very challenging pictures. They represent Bourdin’s ability to bring the complexities of his own personality and his own very complicated feelings about women into that tiny, controlled framework. The magazine page was almost like his confession … It’s as if he hijacked the medium for his own personal uses.

– Philippe Garner

There was something very protective about him. I didn’t see that side that he’s actually quite known for, that he pushed his models to the brink and was incredibly difficult to work with. He probably wasn’t like that to me because there was no need … I just loved going there. You knocked on the door and stepped into another world.

– Nicolle Meyer

The stars rose like a zodiac rocket for American Vogue in the spring of 1975, for the magazine’s incendiary May issue. With its twenty-six pages of conspicuous sexual vignettes it signalled the arrival of a new kind of fashion photography – influenced by punk, disco and glam deviance – rooted in “the idea of distanced eroticism, which showed glamour as an excessive façade, always on the brink of collapse,” as described by Rebecca Arnold in her book Fashion, Desire and Anxiety: Image and Morality in the 20th Century. Besides Deborah Turbeville’s Sapphic bathhouse series and Helmut Newton’s “The Story of Ohhh” (including the superb picture of Lisa Taylor on a sofa, splaying her legs like a man as she lustfully zooms in her male prey), it also featured an inscrutable photographic miracle about supposed overindulgence, shiny violence and sudden death on the sidewalk: a modern vanitas and an advertising spread for Charles Jourdan by Guy Bourdin (1928–1991).

In a great interview with Cecil Beaton in Popular Photography in April 1938, the famous Vogue photographer revealed what he would like to do with fashion photography: “It would be gorgeous instead of illustrating a woman in a sport suit in a studio, to take the same woman in the same suit in a motor accident, with gore all over everything and bits of the car here and there. But naturally that would be forbidden.” Guy Bourdin (who didn’t speak any English but who had heard about the interview) took care of that during his iconic 1970s when he created his indelible work for French Vogue and for the French luxury shoe brand. Bourdin’s fabricated crime scene whisks the viewer into his surreal dream world of insouciant, dark, funny, charming hedonism. What remains of the woman who has kissed this life goodbye is her chalk outline (which strangely looks like the hill figures in southern UK) in front of a midnight blue Lincoln Continental by the curb, and her pools of blood and disorderly pink Charles Jourdan shoes. That year, Beaton referred to Bourdin as “unquestionably the most interesting fashion photographer in Paris today”.

“Bourdin’s fantasy world occasionally collides with reality, and his reactions can appear bizarre,” suggested Erla Zwingle in American Photo (December 1989). She was one of hardly any journalists who saw him working in a studio once – Bourdin never granted interviews. “Yet none denies that Bourdin’s life, even down to the conflicts, is arranged to suit himself exactly and no one else.” An American representative for Jourdan (Joe Moore) is quoted in this article: “I think his work created the image of Charles Jourdan as it still is today. Sometimes we thought it was good, sometimes we didn’t. Many, many times it was just Guy Bourdin pictures that didn’t have anything to do with our product. So from a merchant’s point of view we were always internally arguing and debating the validity of his work. But nobody has ever challenged his artistic approach, which was very special. And although it’s been almost ten years, the customers still identify Jourdan with Guy Bourdin – that’s how strong the image is he helped create.”

Model Susan Moncur said of Bourdin that, “Everybody wanted to work with him, absolutely. And if you were his preferred model of the day, you got the feeling that it was such privilege that you would do dangerous things to please him.” Her colleague Wallis Franken, who survived Guy Bourdin but not the cruelty of her bitch queen designer husband Claude Montana – Franken committed suicide in 1996 – told The New Yorker (November 7, 1994) how she “understood his sense of humour, which was very twisted but nonetheless very funny. If you reacted badly, he would push you until you cracked. But I thought he was funny, so I would become his accomplice as far as other models were concerned. He would make them cry. We were all enlisted. We were all players.”

Bourdin’s personal life was marked by lost lives and real death. Holly Warner, an American girl who had helped him as a translator during a Jourdan photo shoot in New York, “only” knifed her wrists during the chaos with Bourdin. “Guy was a very dictatorial person,” she confirms. “He had rules that were not aligned with normal behaviour.” Bourdin repeated the very thing he hated his mother’s guts for when he abandoned his wife Solange and their baby Samuel in 1968 for Warner.

Solange swallowed a bottle of sedatives and killed herself when her husband invited his new lover Sybille Dallmer to move in with him on rue de Pélican near the Louvre. She was the friend of the young Austrian model Eva Gschopf who had been with Bourdin until that fatal day in September 1969 when she fell off a tree at Woodstock. Dallmer’s features were identical to her friend’s and both had pallor skin and reddish hair, just like the mother that Bourdin despised so much. This was the dawning of the age of Sagittarius.

Alexis Bernier and François Buot describe the people who formed the disco era in France in their book L’Esprit des 70s: “Younger, more cynical, less utopian than their elder-brother 68 generation, they took a perverse pleasure in taking the exact opposite of the ideals of a generation who (according to them) had totally failed. In this way their cult of stardom was without doubt the biggest kick in the face to all those who had wanted an egalitarian society.”

“It was fashion not art that was the heartbeat of the city now,” as Alicia Drake puts it in The Beautiful Fall: Fashion, Genius and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris. “It was inevitable that Paris punk’s real success should be as an aesthetic pose, one of unflinching superficiality and deliberate visual subversion.” This was precisely what marked the avant-gardism of Guy Bourdin during his wickedly great decade with the dark fantasies in rich colours. But Bourdin’s morbidly obsessive, perplexing fashion photography was always ultimately about something else than providing colourful “Me” candy for the fashion pack.

Just listen to what photography authority Philippe Garner had to say about it in the BBC documentary Dreamgirls: The Photographs of Guy Bourdin (1996): “Desire becomes in his photographs a very confused and complex emotion. It has nothing to do with carnal lust whatsoever. They are photographs about the problems of desire, the problems of connecting.”

“Those of us who remember Bourdin’s pictures tend to remember them as events,” wrote Christian Caujolle in the November/December 2001 issue of American Photo. One must understand that the sole vehicle that Bourdin accepted for his photography was the magazine spread, and many years after his passing there were still no books, catalogues, exhibitions or anything else that would give access to his work. The show at the V&A in London in 2003, which travelled the world (but not the US), was the premiere survey of the art of Guy Bourdin.

Alistair O’Neill, who curated Guy Bourdin: Image Maker at Somerset House, a cultural centre with an outdoor winter ice rink in London, told Hunger magazine (November 25, 2014) how he thought Bourdin “fetishized framing” and how “he operated as much as an art director as a photographer”: “The one thing I think is really interesting is that Bourdin, perhaps more than any other photographer working in his time, was really acutely aware of how his work would be read in printed form. So for him, the magazine – how it felt in the hand, how you turned the pages, how a double spread would appear in landscape – all of that was really important to what he was interested in, and although it’s fantastic to be able to show large amazing prints of his work, you lose something of the logic of the magazine.”

Let’s go to Stockholm. “Bourdin was an obvious name on our list of historical photographers to show,” explains Fotografiska’s Marketing Director Margita Ingwall. “For this exhibition, both we and Shelly Verthime wanted to focus more on the man behind the camera, the photographer, the artist, the pioneer Guy Bourdin, rather than just his pictures, and the exhibition is designed and curated with those considerations in mind.” So if you lose something of the logic of the magazine when you gasp your way through the upper “darkroom” at Fotografiska, so what! Guy Bourdin Avant-Garde, curated by Verthime (who also co-curated the show at Somerset House), is such a rich amassment – and entanglement – of weird beauty in its purest form.

This is not a blurb: “Being a painter who was not interested in being successful, wealthy, or having access to females gave my father an entirely different approach to his work. He was an imagemaker, first and foremost. He knew all the museums of Europe. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of poetry. Being self-taught, he never ceased to learn and explore. The finality of his work was to express himself, explore, and to push his creative boundaries, with no marketing media plans involved.” This is Samuel Bourdin talking to Kristin Farr in Juxtapoz magazine last year (April 2015) and it is easy to see that he holds a lot of affection for his father. “He did shy away from notoriety, more out of being humble than anything else. I don’t think success was ever a priority. Money certainly was not, since most of his income from the Charles Jourdan campaigns, for example, went into subsidising editorial work for Condé Nast.”

Many people, especially so the artist himself, regarded Guy Bourdin as a painter first of all: with Kodachrome – yes, with brushes – no. His paintings (there is a number of them in the show) are frankly quite talentless, clumsy boy dreams. But the showcases are indeed a rich source of all kinds of personal memorabilia and sketches – notebooks, tape-marked Polaroids, and drawings with the matching exactitude of a plan by Brunelleschi – from which he constructed his intense photo narratives of unreal glamour in the 1970s: crepuscular games in lush hotel rooms or in metropolitan streets, neon angels on the road to ruin, in open-toe shoes by Jourdan.

“Guy synthesised all that surrounded him, taking everything in and sending images back,” says his late-70s muse Nicolle Meyer, the beautiful queen of many of Bourdin’s greatest pieces who filled the lavish photobook Guy Bourdin: A Message for You (2006) with her modelling reminiscences and pictures. She thinks that he worked much like a filmmaker: “He instructed you but also let you improvise within the frame of his idea. Certain images required specific sets and scenarios. One has to keep in mind that this was a pre-digital era and numerous ideas demanded a lot of preparation, hence Guy thought them out in detail. He was a perfectionist – there was no touching up of an image once it was taken.”

The queen of leotards says that although Bourdin’s idea of beauty “was a very particular one”, he never asked her to do anything unpleasant. She wrote about him in The Telegraph (May 5, 2009): “I was happy to be a player in his fantasies. I loved the theatrics, his quest for perfection, his resourcefulness in achieving each image. Even though I was only seventeen years old when I started working with him – and a complete novice at that – I intuitively understood what his demands were and trusted him implicitly. Acting out the unconventional never fazed me.”

Bourdin was totally into astrology and only worked with models born under the six zodiac signs that suited him, the Sagittarius. Nicole Wisniak, founder of Egoïste magazine in 1977, is quoted in Zwingle’s American Photo feature regarding Bourdin’s irrational behaviour and notoriety: “He is not the monster he pretends to be. But part of his talent goes with his neuroses. I always say Guy’s the John McEnroe of photography. He needs to be in a bad mood. Suddenly he will be very aggressive, to create some electricity.”

A concave wall displays his unedited fashion films – a selection of Bourdin’s twelve hours of Super 8 “behind-the-scenes” footage from many of his photo shoots – split into four sections. What is most remarkable about these creations is the relaxed and spontaneous looks of his models. Another wall loop at Fotografiska is a black and white film with a young-looking Bourdin who is walking by the sea with a tripod in his hand and camera gear on his shoulder. He looks like the “schoolboy” that Edmonde Charles Roux described him as when she engaged him for French Vogue in the mid 1950s (a contract which lasted until 1987). In another feature in American Photo (November/December 2001), Jean-Jacques Naudet remembered Bourdin as “a giant monolith of provocation. Physically, he was a kind of Dorian Gray, with the unchanging looks of a thirty-year-old when he was more than twice that age.”

Guy Bourdin discovered his flair for photography in Africa. He endured the mandatory years of military service in the Armée de l’air where he served as an aerial photographer. He could have ended up in Magny-en-Vexin – not far from Paris, but still far away from everything – since he wanted to set up a business there, as a wedding photographer. The earliest works in the Guy Bourdin Avant-Garde exhibition are his photographs of Paris, taken a few years after the occupation, and some pictures from Man Ray’s studio. Bourdin became friends with the only person he idolised after Man Ray’s return to Paris in 1951. (Man Ray’s words of introduction for the first gallery show of Bourdin’s photographs ended: “I can tell you that Guy Bourdin is trying with all his heart to be more than a good photographer.”) Bourdin’s second photo show in Paris in 1953 was the last one in his lifetime. John Szarkowski (who later succeeded Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Art in New York) loved what he saw and spent decades trying to solve the riddle “Edwin Hallan”.

The “monolith of provocation” was different from the start with the Paris edition of Vogue, and the magazine as well as Charles Jourdan gave him a carte blanche to do whatever he wanted. Bourdin was arrested in the late 1950s when he had camels walk outside the old Chambre des députés for a fashion shoot during the height of the conflict between France and Algeria. He was so different every time he turned himself on – the restrained surrealism, the deceptive bends of his “girl pictures” of the 1960s (though they were never as good as the works by Sam Haskins), and those fashion pictures where the dresses served no further purpose than a “MacGuffin” in a film. (The MacGuffin is the desired object in the centre of the story that is believed to arouse the suspense, while in reality it has little or no value.) Then Bourdin turned himself into a live wire.

Tom Wolfe delineated the “Me” Decade in New York magazine in 1976 (August 23): “The old alchemical dream was changing base metals into gold. The new alchemical dream is: changing one’s personality – remaking, remodelling, elevating, and pushing one’s very self … and observing, studying, and doting on it. (Me!)” The traits of Bourdin’s “Me” obsessiveness are all over the place at Fotografiska – a floodlight of images from a decade when narcissism had its ups and looked the part, and life was a pop of the cherry.

The eyes of Bourdin were so acute throughout his dissertation of the 1970s. He took his photography through adversity to the stars when he limited his range and “brought danger and deathliness to notions of glamour” (Rebecca Arnold). He was almost like a one-man genre: “We complimented each other. If he had been alone or I had been alone, it wouldn’t have worked,” as Helmut Newton professed in the BBC documentary a few years after Bourdin’s death. Philippe Garner talks about how “Newton was doing everything possible to bring models’ skin to life, to shine and gleen with a particular vitality. And Bourdin was doing the opposite.” The Dorian Gray of photography was like the protagonist in À rebours, the decadent novel by J-K Huysmans from 1884: “Tired of artificial flowers aping real ones, he wanted some natural flowers that would look like faked.”

“In the 1970s, it was still a time when models were putting on their own make-up for fashion shoots, you didn’t really get the professionalization of make-up until the late 70s and early 80s,” says Alistair O’Neill. “The idea of a photographer being heavily involved in the make-up is slightly different, and this is why François Nars is such a fan of Bourdin as he appreciates that Bourdin was using make-up in a clever way to structure his images.” It was a matter of chance (and a matter of Bourdin having his way with everything) that Heidi Morawetz became a world-renowned make-up artist: “I was on vacation in Paris and met Guy Bourdin, because he was my best girlfriend’s husband. He pulled make-up out of his wallet and said to me, ‘Well, if you can paint on paper, you must be able to paint on a face,’” Morawetz told Interview magazine (September 20, 2011). The signal-red mouths, the marked cheekbones and those great eyes with fake lashes and heavy mascara were works by Morawetz for Jourdan and Patrick Hourcade for Vogue.

The plan for the photo shoot of the thirty-six-page “Sighs and Whispers” underwear catalogue that Bourdin finally made in 1976 was to replace the shop windows of Bloomingdale’s 59th Street with breakaway glass and create a riot with three hundred models looting the Manhattan department store. Arthur Cohen who was responsible for the store’s marketing had to pull the plug. “Special fashion photographers are extremely complicated and diabolical people, because that’s what’s required,” Cohen told Erla Zwingle. “He had every great model of the time come into the advertising department and take her clothes off; he Polaroided them and concluded that none of them was any good. None of them. So he started going to the clubs and found girls there.”

Cohen loved the final product, which took a month to shoot, and had it distributed via the Sunday papers and dispatched to 650,000 Bloomingdale’s customers. In her book about the department store (published in 1980), Maxine Brady argues how Bourdin used “Sighs and Whispers” to parade “these sloe-eyed Lolitas through a series of scenes showing the young women doing what young women do in the privacy of a house: sitting three abreast on a sofa, dressed in nothing but sheer bras, panties (in two out of three cases), high-heeled gold shoes, and that come-hither make-up […] gazing restlessly out of the curtainless window into the city that holds the key to the city.” To slander these beautiful, playful and thoughtful women as “Lolitas” is almost to lower things to the excremental level of Swedish debate in the 21st century.

The five-star parenthesis-formed Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, excessively designed by Morris Lapidus in the mid 1950s, became the residence for Bourdin and his small entourage of models and aides for a month between December 77 and January 78 – and there are several classic pictures from Florida in the exhibition – where they tried to pull all that workload off between the unexpectedly heavy downpours, as described by Nicolle Meyer in an interview by Patrick Remy in L’Oeil de la Photographie (March 15, 2013):

“One day in Miami, he found a shop window with mannequins in it, and he came back to get me and made me pose with them. He would take Polaroids, or films that he would have developed the same day, for the location shooting. But sometimes we just hung out. He would look at the landscape. He wanted to travel and nothing else. He bought some cowboy boots, we went to restaurants. He was freaking out because there was so much work to do and it kept raining. Guy got so angry. It was really dramatic.”

It was Bourdin’s second wife Sybille Dallmer who made sure that Samuel did not have to repeat the rootless upbringing of his father, and she arranged so he could move in with them on rue de Pélican. In 1979 they crossed the Channel and travelled the UK in a black Cadillac. It was a photographer under the influence of Stilton, port and B&Bs who created the large series of mannequin legs that walk through the Britishness of old Blighty, and all the different varieties, in the most beautiful French shoes. A few sinister pictures have a feel of Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) and Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972), in which a number of women end their days with a tie around their necks in Robert Rusk’s bed at 3 Henrietta Street in Covent Garden. “You are my type of woman.”

Bourdin, with his pathological need for control over everything in life, kept his once fun and lively woman as his prisoner on rue de Pélican. Sybille was not allowed to leave the building without him or to have any kind of human contact on her own. In 1981 when Samuel (then fourteen) came home from school, he found her hanging from the ceiling in their apartment studio.

There are a little too many witnesses about Bourdin’s obsession with death, how he waited for the perfect picture when he could photograph his models dying in front of his camera – think of Mark, the humble serial killer in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) – how he wanted to go to a morgue and photograph a group of corpses over a long period of time. For the Pentax calendar in 1980, Bourdin chose to “kill” Nicolle Meyer. Meyer is lying flat down in the famous picture at Fotografiska, rouged, naked, arms arranged as if she were a Bellmer doll, with blood-red nail polish pouring out of her mouth. Surreal gravity and murder as performance art.

He took up painting again and lived on a daily baguette and a tin of sardines after Sybille’s suicide. Then he was called to the tax authorities, where he took off all his clothes and called the flabbergasted inspector a “Nazi”. The publisher of Vogue, Robert Caille, and the editor of Paris Match, Roger Thérond, bailed him out. (“A year in prison would have strengthened my soul,” he told them.) “Then there was the time,” writes Christian Caujolle, “when the late American collector Sam Wagstaff, a rather tightfisted man, offered him a blank check for one of his prints. Bourdin refused the money, though he certainly needed it.”

In 1985, Bourdin was reputedly awarded the Grand Prix de la Photographie by the French State, and a check in the amount of 70,000 francs (€10,000), which he returned. Jean-Jacques Naudet confirms to The Stockholm Review that, “The prize he refused was not coming from the Ministry of Culture but from Jean-Luc Monterosso, and we totally fabricated a jury. Guy returned the check to me with these words, ‘Thank you for the pastries, but I can’t have any. My cholesterol level is too high.’”

Bourdin lightened up when he met his common-law wife Martine Victoire in the mid 80s, and then Wisniak put him to work at Egoïste. (Shelly Verthime has really selected the best pieces from this period as well, as most of them were celebrity portraits.) Bourdin bequeathed his six thousand pictures to Victoire, pictures that his son took legal control over in 1997: “As a matter of fact, he kept every piece of his negatives, I have boxes and boxes of rejects,” says Samuel Bourdin. “My father kept everything and never underestimated his work. It was the meaning of his life.”

Michel Guerrin’s Exhibit A: Guy Bourdin was published in 2001, a decade after the photographer’s death from cancer when he was sixty-two. Here, Guerrin observes how “Bourdin’s visual concepts are innovations in that the viewer finds himself present at a crucial point in the drama – even while having the impression that the important action isn’t in the image, that is taking place separately, before or after, that some threat is looming, that some inexplicable event is happening, betokened only by a clue in the corner of the frame. Are we in the realm of dream or reality? In some unsettling between-place?”

We are in his mind. Guy Bourdin saw things you people wouldn’t believe.

Guy Bourdin for Charles Jourdan, Spring 1977.

Guy Bourdin Avant-Garde at Fotografiska in Stockholm through February 21, 2016.