Review: Guy Bourdin: Image Maker at Somerset House, London


Following on from my list of upcoming exhibitions in London at the end of last year, I finally made it to Guy Bourdin: Image Maker at Somerset House last month.  I couldn’t have been more happy.  This is an excellent exhibition that not only appeals to those specifically concerned with both the business and study of fashion, but also anyone who has ever been struck by an interesting advert or editorial in a fashion magazine.  My sister, who is a midwife, and a friend who manages the secondary schools programming for the V&A came with me and we were all delighted by the content and presentation of what is the largest retrospective of Bourdin’s work in the UK since 2003.

With over a hundred prints, as well as a wealth of other objects such as polaroids, sketches, films, paintings, notebooks and transparencies, the exhibition is huge, spanning Bourdin’s prolific career from 1955 to 1987.  This is divided up into eight large display ‘spaces’ across two levels of the Embankment Galleries.  The first space focuses on a road trip around Britain Bourdin took in 1979 with his wife, son, some fashion assistants and a pair of disembodied mannequin legs.  From London to Brighton to Liverpool, Bourdin travelled up and down the country in a black Cadillac, commissioned by the shoe company Charles Jourdan to take photographs for one of many advertising campaigns he directed.  Here, for the first time, you can see them, known as the ‘Walking Legs’ series, in its entirety.  While only three were actually published, overall there were 22 images which have been blown up and printed in technicolour glory. 

Walking Legs series, 1979

Each image presents us with the mannequin legs exploring the various everyday landscapes of Britain, from the seaside to the pub, from the bus stop to a park bench.  These heeled legs engage with their surroundings as they cross roads, lean against fences, walk through doors or even take a bath in a hotel room.  As you move between the images, you want to know where these legs will find themselves next, what shoes they might sport and who they might bump into.  In a recent interview about the exhibition and the influence of Bourdin on her own work, the fashion designer Mary Katrantzou gives a nice description of how his images draw us in:

“Bourdin’s images are all about the decoration of space. There is a tension between the woman, the space and her position in an environment which might have a prop such as a sofa. The way you see her changes because of the use of space, it evokes a certain emotion. You want to know the narrative: why is she there? What is the image telling us? There is always a story behind it. You become a bit of a voyeur, and that is part of their power. You want to find out more.”[1]

An example of how Bourdin uses the shoes as a McGuffin in order to drive the story forward in this scene Guy Bourdin: Charles Jourdan, Spring 1975

The second space is a large and long mezzanine gallery that again features blown up images of photographs he created while at French Vogue during the 1960s and 1970s, as well as more from Charles Jourdan where he was apparently allowed absolute creative freedom.  As you walk from side to side, taking in what are really quite monumental images of clothes and accessories always set within a highly staged scene, it is very difficult not to be seduced by Bourdin’s dark but funny depiction of women’s fashions.  It was interesting to discover that one of his influences, besides Surrealism, was Alfred Hitchcock’s use of a McGuffin, which is a prop that distracts us for a moment while we figure out what is going on in the story but has no bearing on its conclusion.  My understanding of a McGuffin is that it’s form is unimportant but that its function is to allow us to follow a story, sometimes making us stop to look around at what’s happening.  Bourdin often used shoes and accessories as McGuffins in his photographs by drawing attention to the scene so we can follow what is always a suggested or implied narrative.

An unfinished painting; a study for a photograph

I especially liked some small displays, in this second space, dedicated to showing us how Bourdin would research, develop and design his images before executing them on photographic film.  His notebooks, sketches, polaroids, even postcards, reveal not only a skilled draughtsman but also a very technical approach in the way that he worked.  Bourdin’s notebooks are full of written descriptions and poems that attempt to capture the visual images that were in his head.  They reveal someone methodical and exacting, an ‘obsessive formalist’ as suggested by a review of the exhibition in British Vogue.  This is further supported by one of the later gallery spaces that feature his paintings and earlier work produced under the watchful eye of Man Ray in Paris during the early 1950s.  The paintings are far from emotional affairs but rather they act as research for his photographs, allowing him to better see the colour and perspective of his theatrical images.

1973 double page Charles Jourdan advertisement

His attention to all aspects of his design process is reflected  in another room that shows how much editorial control he had over his fashion images in French Vogue.  Supported by the editor at the time, Francine Crescent, he often only provided the final image and specific instructions pertaining to its layout.   Most of us will also be familiar with the fact that it was Bourdin, along with Helmut Newton, who introduced the double spread editorial to fashion magazines. 

A photograph featuring the model Nicolle Meyer

The final three spaces are dedicated to his notable interest in shoes and legs as photographic subjects, his professional work featuring the model Nicolle Meyer, whom he worked exclusively with between 1977 and 1980 and, finally, a display of his polaroids which he often used to test out locations and scene dimensions.  These galleries provided further supporting statements for his attempts at perfectionism.  In particular, I liked how, with an advertisement for Charles Jourdan shoes, he would stage an elaborate set such as two women spending time in a hotel room and then photograph it from a variety of angles, as if he was filming it frame by frame. Only by doing this did it seem he could explore scale, composition and focus in order to ‘find’ the final image he had in his head.  

A polaroid taken in the mid 1950s of Paris by Bourdin

At first, I found the final display of polaroids slightly underwhelming, presented more as contemporary works of art which it seems is how the gallery representing the Guy Bourdin Estate would like his work to now be more understood.  However, since then, I read an interview with the curator Alistair O’Neill and his following comment made me think differently about their impact:

“I think it [the gallery of Polaroids] is the most intimate way of connecting Bourdin with his process. These things were very close to him,” says O’Neill. “He pulled them out of the camera as well as taking the picture, he shook it in his hand waited for it to develop and he kept them for a long time. Contrary to some of the exhibition photographs that have only recently been printed, these are very intimately connected to the photographer.”[1]

This comment also reflects, perhaps, Bourdin’s avoidance of any exhibition or sale of his work.  However, his preference for commercial ephemera in which to place his final image is curiously juxtaposed with an elaborate design process that resulted in a range of concrete, diverse forms in order to realise his imaginations.

Guy Bourdin, Vogue Paris 1977

Although there is much debate around Bourdin’s depiction of women and whether they are objects of subjects of the viewer’s gaze, this is not discussed in great depth within the exhibition.  I did wonder if this absence of interpretation had something to do with the curators and collaborators wanting these images to be seen more as works of art and less as consumable, designed images.  Yet, overall, the exclusion of the debate did allow me to really focus on the images, soaking them in before I then ponder upon their social, political and cultural significance. 

While I agree that the most successful aspects of the exhibition are those that are more personal[3], where Bourdin’s practices and influences are revealed, I actually enjoyed how little personal background there was about him.  Bourdin was evidently a very private person and yet despite this, he would go to great lengths to create his images. According to one article about him written in 2007, this included dying the sea a different colour, covering models entirely in glue and jewels so they couldn’t breath and having a pylon repainted a slightly different shade of grey.[4] The curator’s decision to avoid speculation about his artistic character, instead emphasising the extent to which he would create a photographic illusion was a wise one, making for a subtle but significant exhibition that I highly recommend. 



[1] Interview with Mark Katrantzou by Lauren Cochrane

[2] Interview with Alistair O’Neill by Anya Lawrence



Top image: Guy Bourdin: Vogue Paris, May 1970




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