'Imagination will take you everywhere'
Stilettos. A pair of them worn by two shapely legs strut down a seafront promenade decked with beach huts. These legs do not belong to a stylish sun-worshipper; they do not belong to a person. Another image depicts an English garden in full bloom, pale pink roses fill the composition, while two elegant legs wearing black heels dance in the background. The body is yet to be built; instead all eyes are on the shoes. These mysterious legs belong to a mannequin, and they wonder though all of Guy Bourdin’s photographs in the first room of the Embankment Galleries. The retrospective of French fashion photographer, Bourdin, has seen style aficionados flock in their hundreds to view his iconic imagery. Not since London Fashion Week has glamour of this intensity descended upon Somerset House. But on entering the exhibition where – I hear you ask – is the fashion? Landscapes of British daily life line the walls with only the addition of a pair of strapping pins to dress up the scenes. This is a prime example of Bourdin the innovator: transforming fashion photography into something other than fashion. For his 1979 campaign – entitled ‘Walking Legs’ – with the shoe designer, Charles Jourdan, mannequin’s legs appear alone and isolated in an everyday context, thus giving a surreal and slightly sinister edge to an otherwise normal setting. Ducks paddle in the dappled sunlight while a pair of legs rest by a bench. You can almost imagine a sci-fi director standing out of shot calling ‘ACTION’ and the legs bursting to life in an animated frenzy.
Bourdin was different. Rather than containing a beautiful model to harness the commercial possibilities of fashion, he made images that didn’t fit the status quo; they were visually stimulating in their uniqueness. His surreal style is evidence of a lifelong fascination with the surrealist Man Ray, who took him in as a protégé and transformed him from a photographer who plied his trade in the French Air Force, to a photographer who pushed boundaries and who eventually became a regular contributor to Paris Vogue. His first photograph for the fashion bible appeared in 1955, which led to a 30 year relationship with the magazine. But that relationship wasn’t without a few ups and downs; his first shoot was staged in the meat market of Paris’s Les Halles. The models posed in the latest millinery under dead cows’ heads and slabs of meant hung up by metal hooks – not for Vogue’s faint hearted readers. ‘Un Scandale’ ensued, but controversy only proved to strengthen his creativity.
Capturing the mise-en-scene is at the heart of Bourdin’s imagery. He planned the setting with meticulous detail – in the room up-stairs there is a table filled with notebooks containing scruffy French handwriting, beside them is a preparatory drawing complete with grids ensuring he achieved the correct composition and angle. You would be mistaken for thinking he was planning the building of a bridge not the execution of a fashion shoot. Yet this careful articulation ensured Bourdin didn’t only achieve photographic perfection but also enabled his images to portray a narrative. This contrasted with the usual blandness of fashion photography at that time. The photographs on the upper floor appear as if they are film stills taken from reworkings of classic Hollywood movies. In one photo, a damsel in distress’s legs clad in colourful tights are bound by rope, lying helplessly across a railway track, in another a nude model lies twisted on the ground, blood flowing from her red pout; both would seamlessly fit into a Hitchcock masterpiece. These images are supercharged with suspense, mystery and sexual undertones; the perfect ingredients to ensnare the viewer’s imagination. As the exhibition continuously points out, Bourdin ‘extended the parameters of what a fashion photograph could convey.’
Indeed Bourdin’s talents weren’t restricted to photography – although that was his strongest medium – he also dabbled in film. His unedited footage of fashion shoots captured on his Super 8 Camera are juxtaposed with the posed facades of his images; bright, natural and inartificial frames wobble from one to the next, depicting his musings while on a shoot. God knows how he had time to both film and photograph. The circular room with his black and white fashion film projected on to the walls gives a disorientating effect. The camera is a roving eye following a long lost lover; the bashful ingénue smiles playfully at his lens, giving a wink here and there.
Bourdin was an artist before he was a photographer. This exhibition is the first time his art has been exhibited in the UK. His constant need for perfection is evident through his paintings which he kept returning to in order to rework and improve. Lines, sketching and rough marks are all visible underneath thin patches of paint. Some unfinished paintings depict his thought-process; a plethora of geometric shapes reveal how he was to construct a fireplace, while the outline of a high-heel shoe adorns one smudged foot. All of these artworks have a touch of Salvador Dali about them, with conceptual nuances and a surrealist flair. Many of the paintings depict a room in which hanging on the wall is a mini-painting – precise and tiny – like a world within a world.
The last room of the exhibition is filled with a series of tiny Polaroid images dwarfed by clean white frames. These reveal Bourdin’s mind-set as an image-maker, as he used these snapshots to test out the composition and setting before committing to the final photograph using negative or transparency film. Bourdin’s love of the landscape as a setting is demonstrated through these black and white shots – often they are eerily empty and enhanced with dramatic lighting. A jet of water sprays through the shadows and into a patch of sunlight in a park silhouetted with trees; the only thing missing are people. You can almost imagine an alluring young woman running carefree through the water droplets, or perhaps a pair of mannequin legs bedecked in stilettos posing nonchalantly as the photographer clicks away.