French fashion photographer Guy Bourdin was an avant-garde legend who brought the surreal to the glossy world of magazines in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He understood that his magazine work could easily be flipped through and discarded, so wanted to stop readers of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar in their tracks.
The Helmut Newton Foundation – Museum for Photography in Berlin is showing 100 works by Bourdin from 1955 to 1987 in Image Maker, which opens on 30th November. The sprawling show features classics and unseen photos from his adventurous 40-year career. There are Polaroid test shots, double-page spread layouts, sketchbooks, paintings and contact sheets from this trailblazing pioneer who changed not only fashion photography, but colour photography as well.
It also coincides with the release of a new book by Steidl publishing called Untouched, which looks at Bourdin’s black-and-white photos in Paris taken between 1950 and 1955 (where his work began). Bourdin started out working for the Dakar Air Force as an aerial photographer in the late 1940s, during the Second World War, and after returning to Paris in 1950, he reached out to surrealist artist Man Ray seven times before he finally agreed to become Bourdin’s mentor.
Instead of going the art gallery route for his photography, Bourdin began working for Vogue Paris in 1955, which led to a series of commercial clients and commissions for Charles Jourdan, Coco Chanel and Bloomingdale’s.
Working under a surrealist artist like Man Ray gave Bourdin a significant avant-garde bent compared to the more commercial-minded photographers of the time. He made fashion photography strange, otherworldly and relied on visual storytelling, an unlikely approach that pushed fashion photography beyond the pleasant and into the provocative. It also led him to becoming a “partner in crime” of Newton, who was his colleague in the 1960s and 1970s in the fashion world, as both gained the reputation for their “radical chic” aesthetic.
Some photos in the exhibition include his Walking Legs series for Charles Jourdan shoes in the 1970s, one of which shows a model in a red bathing suit draped over a dolphin. Another shows his famous shot of red nails for Vogue Paris from 1970 alongside shoots on the streets of Paris, Milan and New York City.
Far before our celebrity-obsessed world, Bourdin’s work was always erotic, and even dark. He has influenced today’s fashion photographers Mario Testino, Ellen von Umwerth, Tim Walker and Nick Knight. Bourdin truly shined in the 1970s, a precursor to the entertainment industry’s obsession with glamor and sexuality that came to rise in the 1980s. He worked quickly, shunned the spotlight and gave very few interviews. But one thing he did say (which is captured in the pages of Untouched) summed up his approach to fashion photography: “Better five minutes of happiness than a lifetime of conformity.”
‘Image Maker’ by Guy Bourdin opens November 30 at 8 pm at the Helmut Newton Foundation – Museum for Photography, Jebenstrasse 2 in Berlin, Germany.