By Paul Bench
The Guy Bourdin retrospective curated by Alistair O’Neill with Shelly Verthime at Somerset House presents the opportunity for a contemporary re-appraisal of Bourdin’s work, following the last major exhibition in London at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2003. The exhibition also follows a successful programme of fashion photography in Somerset House, which has recently included Erwin Blumenfeld and Norman Parkinson. The primary objective of the show appears to be the illumination of both the man and his creative process as expressed through his films and paintings, alongside the photographic work for which he is most famous, and it makes a case for the influence of his work in the former mediums on his photographic experimentation. A predominant portion of the exhibition is composed of photographic prints, some in enlarged formats and others as smaller vintage prints, including a selection of atmospheric polaroids. The rhythm of the curated journey seems to reassure with confirmed assumptions and then disarm with unexpected departures.
The most successful and perhaps rightly famed pieces are those from the 1970’s and early 1980’s, often produced for fashion magazines and in particular as advertorial images for the shoe brand Charles Jourdan. It is in these that the influence of his early tutelage from Man Ray may best be seen in the adoption of a surrealist and lateral approach. Perhaps the shoe as an accessory lends itself more completely to this broadly surreal treatment, seeming somehow to be more complete as an object with or without a body than clothing would, whilst also being a recognised leitmotif of the true Surrealist movement of an earlier period.
Through these images it could be argued that Bourdin is objectifying the female subject, using her on occasion as a sculpture or a prop, and sometimes replacing her entirely as with the mannequin legs he uses to such great effect. Taking this analysis further, Bourdin’s photographic eye is perceived as a direct stand-in for the male gaze, and as an orchestrator of images that evoke subversive and sometimes sexually violent, if visibly falsified, acts. I would posit however that this predilection to utilise the female form in a sculptural or prop-like manner is a feature of fashion photography across a spectrum of genres. The spectator/audience is not prompted to engage emotionally with the subject of Bourdin’s images. Nor do these photographs hint at a pretence of reality. As the exhibition title affirms, Bourdin is an image maker and a provocateur, not a reportage photographer. It may also prove useful to consider that while Bourdin’s gaze is male, the intended gaze of these images is female – most having been produced for consumption within fashion magazines, or to advertise fashion products to a female customer. Whatever his personal stance, Bourdin’s work is largely situated within an industry dependent on, and arguably moulded by, the female consumer. It can be argued that such images are an example of the reinforcement of the female function of appearing rather than acting, and encourages women to see themselves as objects within a society for which this has become a norm. However, it is the undercurrents, the ambiguous and sometimes disturbing feelings engendered by some of these images that seem to ask us to challenge the content, and the tropes of fashion photography with which Bourdin plays.
Besides the implicit danger of these images, Bourdin circumvents accusations of pornography with his artistry. His management of colour and awareness of composition, line and texture as well as any visual metaphor he may be using for an open ended narrative, raises each image above the bar of the casual, the lazy or the merely titillating. These images are precisely controlled and the spectator is somehow aware of this artistry however consciously or subconsciously. These images are special in their pure fields of jewel colours and too-perfect textures, in the subversive mystery of their narratives and the management of their props. Bourdin plays with our expectations of the fashion image and creates a collision with further unexpected associations, all within a scheme of gorgeous, controlled, pictorial harmony.
The most successful of the featured Super-8 films are shown in massive projection on four curved walls in a darkened space. The spectator is surrounded at times by the same moving image repeated on these walls in an experience that becomes immersive. Spectators are silhouetted on these wall-screens and the models of the film become monumental as well as ethereal. There is a feeling of play and control. The spectator is implicated but entirely passive as the images change beyond control. These films in themselves seem more wholly to convey a moving expression of Bourdin’s visual concerns and share an equal if differently formulated power to the fashion images for which he gained notoriety.
These moving variants of Bourdin’s themes address in a particularly heightened form the wider concerns of his total output and neatly pose the question to the viewer as to their position and that of the photograph as active or passive in the visual interchange. The agency of both seems to be the underlying theme of the work and indeed the exhibition.
Guy Bourdin: Image Maker is currently on display at Somerset House until 15th March 2015. Further information available here. Header image courtesy of http://www.somersethouse.org.uk/visual-arts/guy-bourdin.