Disembody: How Guy Bourdin Changed Fashion Photography

January 7, 2019 / Spark Magazine

The concrete is stained with something dark enough to be blood. At the juncture of these pools lives stark white lines of chalk, gently framing a female form that is not there. But even in the echo, we can see how her legs bent, how her skirt twisted around her thighs. A sleek black car with chrome that glares in the harsh camera flash is pulled up tight against the curb. Then, one in the left corner and another tucked, almost forgotten, at the brim of the sidewalk in the shadow of the gleaming black. These shocking spots of pink are a pair of Charles Jordan shoes in a Guy Bourdin shoot. They are left almost as an afterthought. Instead, the story of this chalk-lined woman and her expensive car take over the frame of the photograph.

The photo shoot described is reflective of a lot of Guy Bourdin’s work. His photographs read like film stills, like there’s a greater story evolving beyond the paper. How did the woman end up there? Was she hit by the car? Did she fall from the roof? What about the shoes? What do they mean? His works deviated greatly from the prototypical fashion shoots of the time that were focused solely on showcasing the clothes; models and sets were no more than clothing hangers and backgrounds. Bourdin tapped into two important things with his photographs. Firstly, art inspires people to imagine. Second, people like to imagine grander lives for themselves than the ones they are living. His spreads invited people to imagine what it would be like to wear those clothes. The glamour and the intrigue and the sensuality of it all. A woman in a soft nightgown can lay laughing across plush pillows, the mirrors behind her fracture her body, and every disjointed angle dares you to desire to touch, to have.

This radical alternative take on the industry made Guy Bourdin the most famous and sought-after fashion and advertising photographer of the late 20th century. However, let’s not dismiss the intricacies of his artistry simply because he shot for Vogue and Chanel. His campaigns were art and, in their own way, avant-garde. In fact, Bourdin started his career as a photographer in the art world. He called upon the house of renowned surrealist photographer Man Ray six times before finally being received by the man on his seventh visit and becoming his protege. The influence of this great Surrealist and others such as Matisse and Luis Buñuel are evident in his use of color and absurd imagery. Think about the last weird dream you had — maybe it could even be bordering on nightmare-ish — and that’s it. Giant women and gargantuan shoes placed innocuously upon abandoned streets and a foreboding quiet.

A cornerstone in Bourdin’s most iconic works is the placement of disembodied limbs. Octopus legs with no owners spawning from a suitcase in striped leggings. The bottom half of a woman, her torso tipping over a pop color plateau into the abyss. Eyes covered by hands with nails painted red, terraformed one on top of the other. And many of these images were coupled with a stunning use of high-saturation: blues and reds, yellows and greens, and a woman with no head. Add to this concoction shoot locations consisting of desolate streets, grimy apartments, vast flatlands, or a world that consists solely of plains of color. Bourdin’s campaigns look like they’ve walked right out of a surrealist dream.

While he draws inspiration from the avant-garde art scene, there is some disagreement on whether his works could be considered truly avant-garde. Despite the mainstream and commercial component, Bourdin completed the basic requirement of the avant-garde, which is to shock and to disturb. Many of his campaigns elicited such reactions and yet it was the general population’s morbid fascination that allowed him to both demand complete creative control and maintain a long-term partnership with Vogue. Bourdin challenged other fashion photographers to step outside of traditional confines and shake off the constraints of their complacency. His astute references to literature, cinema and art history set him aside from his contemporaries.

It has been said before that the moment an avant-gardist is given an exhibition is the moment they die as an innovator. After the ‘60’s, Bourdin did not allow for exhibitions of his work until 2003, over a decade after his passing. On the count of reputation alone, Bourdin certainly set himself up as a reclusive artist. Whatever the reason for this reluctance, there are presently multiple retrospective exhibitions of Bourdin’s photography scattered across Europe. We can gaze upon them and recognize the exact impact that he had upon commercial photography, and wonder whether those larger than life Charles Jordans, with which he made his name, could ever be filled by another.

Bourdin demanded something new from fashion photographers. Models and spreads were not to be glorified mannequins in a storefront anymore. He understood that clothing has to be worn to be worth anything and that in the swirling scene of haute couture, all a campaign really needs is to be talked about. He gave them plenty to talk about. His images were wildly provocative and confusing. His reputation as an auteur and a notoriously picky photographer was compounded. His name became a sign of class and culture depending on if you could complete the proper French pronunciation or not. And he forcefully pulled the fashion runway closer to the art museums. •

by: Jesse Yin

Photography by: Anna Droddy

Models: Angela Chastain, Rohma Ejaz and Jeanette Hoelscher

HMUA: Alora Jones and Cameron Polonet

Stylists: Ellie Dunn and Gabi Feltner
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