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

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“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-alexan­ 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.

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