retrospective: guy bourdin
Humour, composition, narrative and seduction: Guy Bourdin’s only son, Samuel, disrupts the popular narrative on his father’s life, work and personality in an exclusive interview ahead of an exhibition of his work at Photo London 2017
“Every composition is meaningful,” explains the only son of French artist and fashion photographer Guy Bourdin (19281991), Samuel. “He created a world of his own,” he says of his father, “and was always pushing the limits of beauty, wit, humour, seduction and creation.” A quarter of a century after his death, Guy Bourdin remains an influential, controversial and even revered figure in photography. But is there more to his imagery than surreal compositions and playful, provocative content? Giving rare insight, Samuel explains that his father’s considerations stemmed from an extensive knowledge of art and culture. Born into Surrealism, he became fascinated with the artworks of the great masters and frequented museums and libraries, indulging his interests in Ingres, Bellini, Balthus, Bacon, Man Ray. He kept an extensive library of art, philosophy, cinema and music, and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of poetry. This latter interest is reflected in the fact that in the 1950s, Bourdin exhibited and published his black and white street photographs under the English pseudonym Edwin Hallan. This alter ego resembles the name adoption of Edgar Allan Poe; the choice is significant because the spirit of Poe haunts Bourdin’s work. Ahead of an exhibition of this work at Photo London, and the publication of a new book of his mostly unpublished early work, Untouched, Samuel disrupts the popular narrative on his father’s life, work and personality. Without the knowledge of the breadth
of his father’s interests in the wider arts, he believes that his work is often misinterpreted. Or worse, taken at face value. “I think my father is all about humour, subtlety, composition, narrative evocations and the complexity of seduction,” he says. Bourdin, a fine artist working in a commercial environment, was uncompromising in his vision. He maintained a high level of artistic control over the content of his work and used it to create innovative pictures, which made the advertised product a secondary or even minor element in the frame. “He was amazing,” says fellow fashion and advertising photographer Albert Watson, who worked with him at French Vogue. “He was an intense person and very knowledgeable in art. The driving force for him was always the imagery. He wouldn’t do a job unless he could do it 100 per cent his way. He always went into a job as an artist and that was the end of it.” Bourdin’s best-known work, dating from the 1970s and 1980s – including commissions for shoe designer Charles Jourdan – uses vivid colours and bold compositions to striking effect: all the more remarkable pre-Photoshop. Women's legs are held aloft to create a kaleidoscopic effect, and the playful cropping of models and mannequins' bodies masterfully lead your eye. But despite comprising at least half of his work, his black and white photography is largely unknown, says Samuel – who remains one of the best sources of first-hand information on Bourdin. Born in 1967, Samuel lived in Paris and Normandy with his mother after his parents separated. When his mother died of
a lung condition in 1971, he lived in Paris with his father until the age of 16 when he attended boarding school in New Hampshire, USA. Today, from his position running the Guy Bourdin Estate, Samuel seeks to place an alternative interpretation of Guy Bourdin's work into the public domain.
When did Guy start drawing and taking photographs?
He started drawing after doing his military service in Dakar, Senegal. He was also a photographer for the French military. Later, drawings led to paintings. He was a painter all his life, until the very end. He was exhibiting and selling drawings in New York and Paris before he started exhibiting his photographs.
How soon did he create his distinctive style?
In drawings, paintings and photography, he had a very distinctive style right from the very beginning. He was totally self-taught. I believe he left school by the age of 16, or earlier. By 1956-57 he was a very accomplished black and white photographer, on a par with Walker Evans – no kidding. Later on, he started getting portrait assignments: art critics, painters… Dorothea Tanning, Cesar. Those pictures led him to slowly transition to fashion photography.
Surrealist artists were an influence on his work. Did he meet any Surrealist artists?
He met the Spanish Surrealist painter Oscar Dominguez and
also approached Man Ray. After my father had been shown the door a few times, Man Ray agreed to look at his work. Man Ray even wrote a small introduction to one of my father’s exhibitions.
Did you see your father regularly?
Even when I lived in Paris, I hardly saw my father. He was spending a lot of time at his studio Rue des Ecouffes in Le Marais. But when he went on photo shoots on location abroad, I would often come along. We went to Martinique, Germany, USA, Australia, Haiti, Austria, Brittany, the UK, Hawaii and Los Angeles.
Did you observe him working? If so, what do you remember of that experience?
I saw him working many times, both in Paris and on trips. His studio was an exciting place to be. It was like a movie set, full of props, models, energy and discovery. He was very involved in his work: it was his passion, and he relentlessly strived for perfection. Shooting would end late in the evening and he would invite the ‘troupe’ to the local Jewish deli for champagne and food. The atmosphere was full of joy and excitement. He created a world of his own and was always pushing the limits of beauty, wit, humour, seduction and creation.
Do you know how he achieved the intense colour saturation in his work?
The colour is a family secret. It is important to note that 50 per cent of my father’s work was in black and white.
What drove his work?
A sense of perfection. He was endlessly working, either on his own or for his various clients. I would think that the fact that he was a painter greatly influenced his approach to image composition. In a painting, every brush stroke is intentional. Every composition is meaningful. He also had a hunger for culture, from classical paintings to pop culture. His taste in films went from classical to the grotesque, such as science fiction flicks. He liked directors, from Erich von Stroheim to Dayle.
Some people say he was very demanding on his models, but others say his relationship with them was good...
He was very demanding with himself, his assistants, and his models. I think it is unfair to Guy and his assistants to only focus on his models. Most models I have spoken to were very grateful to have worked with him. He picked models who were not the cliché women of the time. Dayle Haddon was launched by my father. Many models felt involved in the creative process and derived immense gratification from being part of that creative universe.
Your father seems a very complex person. What were your impressions of him?
He was a very passionate man. Full of life and involved in his art. Money had no value for him. He was complex, like most human beings in this world.
Fellow photographer Serge Lutens said Guy “conducted his own psychoanalysis in Do you think that’s true?
My father and Serge Lutens did great work together. I do know
he harbours a lot of resentment towards my father. I am not sure why. But, as in all creative enterprises, the artist has to put a part of his soul in his work. I am not sure it can be possible otherwise to be a creative maverick. So I am not really sure what those comments really mean. All I can say is that when I see the Serge Lutens’ lifeless, robotic and rigid interpretation of the female sex, I do feel uncomfortable. Maybe we should ask him why he wants to represent women in such a disturbing way.
Do you feel his work is often misinterpreted when it’s described as voyeuristic and sadomasochistic?
I certainly do. I could buy sado-masochistic books and we could look for similarities. I doubt we would find many. I think my father is all about humour, subtlety, composition, narrative evocations and the complexity of seduction. I do, however, agree with you. Fashion is about seduction, which implies being made desirable. Hence the voyeuristic and sexual nature of make-up, shoes and clothes.
Did he refuse offers to publish his work?
He did not. Remember that Helmut Newton, who was a great self-promoter (and I don’t mean it in a derogative way), probably published his first book in his late 40s or early 50s. Many photographers take time to publish their work. All I can recall is that one book project fell through in the mid-80s because
of some conflict with the publisher and that the last time I saw my father before he was mute and dying on his death bed, in January 1991, all he could talk about was his book project with Schirmer Mosel.
Is it true that your father refused honours and destroyed some of his work?
He accepted the Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography in 1988 and refused the French Prix National de La Photographie on political grounds, but with this he wrote a sweet letter to the great Minister of Culture we had at the time [explaining why he was to politely decline]. He also never, ever destroyed his work. He kept everything, almost like a hoarder. I have thousands and thousands of transparencies, which were never selected from photo shoots (my father might shoot 20 rolls or more for one image). I also have all his drawings, paintings and writings. It is endless.
As someone who knows his photography perhaps better than anyone, what do you think makes his work unique?
I think his originality and unconventional way of looking at life, and his work, made him special. He only really cared about creating, exploring, inventing. Life had to be lived to the fullest, in work and in play, and he had a huge appetite for culture in all its facets. Being a painter and free of the vanities of this world made him someone special. David Clark
[Above] Charles Jourdan, 1977 [Right] French Vogue, 1972
[Above] French Vogue, 1972 [Right] Karl Lagerfeld for Chloé, 1973
[Above] Charles Jourdan, 1977 [Right] French Vogue, December 1976
[Above] Cover of Boz Scaggs LP Middle Man, 1980 [Right] Unpublished, 1955
All images © The Guy Bourdin Estate 2017, courtesy of the Louise Alexander Gallery (the exclusive representative of the Bourdin Estate), louise-alexander.com. An exhibition of Guy Bourdin’s work will be on show with the Louise Alexander Gallery at Photo London, which will be held at Somerset House, London, from 18-21 May. Guy Bourdin: Untouched will be published in the UK by Steidl later this year.