Guy Bourdin: Charles Jourdan’s Image-Maker

Guy Bourdin was a French born enigmatic fashion photographer that shot over 50 images for the Charles Jourdan campaign between 1967 and 1981. The campaign traced his illustrious seductive visual presentation of the material world, from Man Ray’s protégé to photography revolutionary in his own right, by offering an alternative narrative to the conventional fashion image.[1] He transformed late twentieth century fashion photography into a distinct style of visual storytelling, challenging the traditional vocabulary and parameters of the fashion image, whereby the product became secondary to the product-image itself. The body and landscape became a sculpture through his dramatic compositions, close cropping, and ethnographic style that overruled the need to provide detailed information on the product in question. Fashion photography, therefore, was not just the result of an authorial vision of the product, but a reflection of variable photographic techniques from Bourdin’s choice of apparatus to unconventional editorial policy, creating a visual narrative of explicitly false images used to reveal the corruption of our own desires.

Guy Bourdin - Walking Legs

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The brilliantly vibrant images of ‘Britain by Cadillac’ (1979) looked like ‘strange film stills from a movie you hadn’t seen before but somehow now had to see’.[2] Using only a pair of mannequin legs cut off below the knee, a visual stand in for a woman, he was able to create a whole host of different images where, in each situation, the pair of Charles Jourdan shoes take shape differently. From a pair of stilettos strutting past a bus stop, tiptoeing through an English countryside, or strapped to a train track, Bourdin invites the viewer to visualise out of the absent space, different types of women who should be there, but isn’t. Yet their lack of physicality only adds to the topography of the visual narrative and the Great British cliché’s. Through the isolation of the legs from the rest of the body, Bourdin creates the femme fatale – seductive, compelling, erotic, and disturbing – subverting the traditional commercial remit of fashion photography.[3]

Bourdin transforms a mere object into a blank canvas (tall, striking, brunette; or rather that which fits into our own desires), open to interpretation by way of a pair of ankles and shoes. Striding, waiting, resting or sleeping, the viewer is encouraged to create their own feminine ideal through the use of partial limbs. The female body as an object thus emerges, meticulously placed amidst Britain’s beach huts, bus stops and skylines, capturing the true essence of our human desire: just as the mannequin legs are symbolic of consumerism, Bourdin’s fashion image as a whole reveals our shallow consumer desire to revel in meaningless material comfort. Stripped of its personally identifying characteristics, the mannequin’s legs become anonymous, a ‘surface of another reality’ that de-familiarises the scene, creating tactile, theatrical, and experimental tableaux, designed to destabilise and rupture one’s relationship with the fashion world.[4]

Bourdin’s earlier work for Charles Jourdan, a highly distinctive and visually inventive campaign, also highlights the falsity of the fashion image. Imbued with the occasional flash of realism, the images ultimately seemed staged and manipulated for purpose due to their dark but playful narratives. However, the difference between the two campaigns lies in the photographic techniques he employed; from the use of the magazine’s centrefold and the embedded visual still that further distorted the female body.

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Spatial and temporal expectations are challenged in Bourdin’s 1975 double-page advertisement. The shoes have been discarded at the side of what appears to be a fatal car accident from the outline of a body and splattered blood (or rather what visually appears to be blood), creating an extended gap between the product and the product-image (the product name has been reduced to the size of a mere credit, almost indistinguishable at the bottom of the page).[5]  Rather than the shoes, the focus of the advertisement became Bourdin’s suggestive, surrealist narrative that knocked the one fixed element of a fashion advertisement out of its primary position.[6] The purpose of the images composition becomes apparent when its intended context is considered. At the centre of the double page spread Bourdin placed the centre of the car, marked by the edge created between the two car doors. This division was used to full dramatic effect, separating the blood splattered female torso and head on the right page from the silhouette of a woman’s feet and bright pink shoes, cast to the left side of the image. The two sides of the spread are thereby given contrasting narratives and temperatures, symbolic of the durability of the product that remained seemingly untouched regardless of the surrounding situation. He doesn’t present us with a sleek, carefree world of romance and beauty that occupies the traditional fashion image, rather a private, forbidden world of sexual perversions, glossy vulgarity and psychological corruptions that mock the misogynistic desires of the elitist photographer.

 

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Bourdin’s playful centrefold image can also be found in French Vogue (1979), a Charles Jourdan advertisement featuring a model crouched on an urban walkway, one high-heeled foot and bare leg outstretched on each page.[7] To turn the page was not only to open and close the fashion spectacle, but to open and close her legs, a clever use of the magazine’s centrefold. Bourdin used the double-page spread to transform our ordinary encounter with the double-page advertisement, as the viewer was redirected from the advertised product to the spatial ambiguities of its setting. From the model holding a black and white photograph of herself leaning towards the viewer, obscuring most of her face and entire torso; to his playful use of the magazines centrefold; Bourdin enhanced the way one read an image using ‘partition and alteration of shallow and deep spaces, [and] the frontality of the image with the three-dimensionality of the setting’.[8] For me, one of the forefathers of the provocative aesthetics by which the like of American Apparel swear by today, Bourdin’s mix of playful self-parody and preening self-regard reveals the way in which beauty creates its own type of power and corruption compared to the real.

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His inventive use of the visual still is similarly seen in the above image. In the foreground there is a bed covered in a white sheet. A body is lying on the bed, their breasts and sex are disguised by two white towels, and their feet are extending beyond the bedframe. In the background there is a television that shows a still image of a reclining head with an open mouth; an open door; and a young boy walking along a seemingly lit corridor. The orange platforms are the only clear reference to fashion within the entire image. Bourdin divides the image at the central vertical line using the edge of the open door and the models knee caps. To the right of the image, a warm orange glow immerses the young boy and the models lower legs and feet, contrasting the dark temperatures to the left of the door. The sharp brightness spilling from the television screen creates a further contrast, not just in temperature but by repositioning the models final breath that has been cropped from the image within the television screen. It is through the ruptured body that Bourdin denies the viewer confirmation that it is the body of a fashion model, and whether he/she is dying or simply relaxing. Instead, the identity of the body is derived through its relationship with the young boy. The bodies status as a maternal figure is paramount as the young boy turns his head slightly to the left, a sacrificial young Bourdin, witnessing his mother’s final breath.[9] However, his sadistic image drawn from his own appetite for sexual perversion (often linked to a Freudian interpretation of his repeated use of sexualised red headed models, symbolic of his mother), is no more than one, deeply flawed, understanding. Not least because the quality of his image-making shows that he was not a literal man, but also because his understanding of picture-making meant he was conscious of what he chose to reveal through a photographic image.[10]

However, whether or not we succumb to the temptation to explain Bourdin’s images as a reflection of his own past, I think it is clear to see that Bourdin’s tragic or ironic stories are independent facts and not involuntarily evoked. Whether his models were unkept, distorted, disembodied, or simply not there, she purposefully represents an iconic visual of the disturbing fashion world. With every delicate step and provocative pose, it is evident why Bourdin used the female body as a vehicle to reveal consumer corruption. We become victims of our own voyeuristic gaze as the exaggerated falsity of Bourin’s image reveals the unreality of the setting and the oddity of the female consumer’s vantage point. Distracted from the reality of the product, the point of consumer attachment becomes the tableau in which the female body is immersed, and the realities of consumption are conventionally traversed in the photographic transparency of the image.[11]

 

[1] P. Garner, C. Wilcox & R. Muir, ‘Horst: Photographer of Style Victoria and Albert Museum, London September 6, 2014-January 4, 2915’, A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture, 22:1 (2014), p. 352.

[2] A. O’Neill, ‘Guy Bourdin: Britain by Cadillac’ (London: L&S Heritage, 2014), p. 9.

[3] P. Garner, C. Wilcox & R. Muir, ‘Horst: Photographer of Style Victoria and Albert Museum, London September 6, 2014-January 4, 2915’, p. 352.

[4] W. Chadwick, ‘Mythic Women/Real Women: Embodying Desire in 1938’, in T. Lichtenstein (ed.) Twilight Visions: Surrealism and Paris (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2010), p. 145.

[5] R. Brooks, ‘Sights and Whispers’, in C. Cotton & S. Verthime (ed.), Guy Bourdin (V&A Publications), p. 130.

[6] C. Cotton, ‘The Falsity of an Image’, in C. Cotton & S. Verthime (ed.), Guy Bourdin (V&A Publications), p. 145.

[7] R. Brooks, ‘Sights and Whispers’, p. 129.

[8] R. Brooks, ‘Sights and Whispers’, p. 129.

[9] C. Cotton, ‘The Falsity of an Image’, pp. 144-149.

[10] C. Cotton, ‘The Falsity of an Image’, p. 145.

[11] R. Brooks, ‘Sighs and Whispers in Bloomingdales’, https://secretdangersociety.wordpress.com/2010/09/14/zg-rosetta-brooks-on-guy-bourdins-bloomingdales-catalogue/, accessed: 11/01/2016.

Bibliography

  • Barthes, R., Mythologies (London: Vintage Books, 2009).
  • Benaim, L., ‘Searching for the Infinite’, in C. Cotton & S. Verthime (ed.), Guy Bourdin (V&A Publications).
  • Brooks, R., ‘Sights and Whispers’, in C. Cotton & S. Verthime (ed.), Guy Bourdin (V&A Publications).
  • Brooks, R., ‘Sighs and Whispers in Bloomingdales’, https://secretdangersociety.wordpress.com/2010/09/14/zg-rosetta-brooks-on-guy-bourdins-bloomingdales-catalogue/.
  • Chadwick, W., ‘Mythic Women/Real Women: Embodying Desire in 1938’, in T. Lichtenstein (ed.) Twilight Visions: Surrealism and Paris (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2010).
  • Cotton, C., ‘The Falsity of an Image’, in C. Cotton & S. Verthime (ed.), Guy Bourdin (V&A Publications).
  • Garner, P., Wilcox, C., & Muir, R., ‘Horst: Photographer of Style Victoria and Albert Museum, London September 6, 2014-January 4, 2915’, A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture, 22:1 (2014).
  • O’Neill, A., ‘Guy Bourdin: Britain by Cadillac’ (London: L&S Heritage, 2014).
  • Verthime, S., ‘Instantaneous Poetry’, in C. Cotton & S. Verthime (ed.), Guy Bourdin (V&A Publications).
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