Guy Bourdin: Image-maker

“I started this collection looking at fashion photography for inspiration, but Bourdin made me change tack. Because so many of his images are about the space around the model, I turned that on its head and put images of interiors on women’s clothes, rather than the women themselves.”- Mary Katrantzou 

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Photo: Marianna Michael

This time last year, it was Isabella Blow’s exhibition which overtook the two-floor space allocated to such exhibitions at Somerset House, and this year, it is to guy Bourdin. Until March 15, the biggest exhibition of French photographer, artist and filmmaker Guy Bourdin is being held in London, and it’s one not to be missed.

“Curated by Alistair O’Neill with Shelly Verthime, the exhibition will include over 100 colour exhibition prints of Bourdin’s most significant works, as well as early and late works in black and white that serve to challenge Bourdin’s reputation as a colour photographer. This is complimented by a range of other photographic materials: unique Polaroid test shots, double- page spread layouts, contact sheets and transparencies marked for composition. Together they explore Bourdin’s craftsmanship as an image-maker and the processes involved in producing startling and provocative imagery in a pre-digital age. It also highlights Bourdin as a pioneer of fashion film, showcasing a range of Super-8 films he made at the same time as his on-location photo shoots.”- Somerset House Trust 

Photo: Marianna Michael
Photo: Marianna Michael

Having studied Guy Bourdin in part, and having fallen in love with his photographs for Vogue, this could have been an exhibition of utter satisfaction, or somewhat of a disappointment; luckily for me, Somerset House outdone themselves once again, avoiding the latter.

The impact of this exhibition, in comparison to Isabella Blow’s, were considerably different. The scale of work and the medium of work, white obviously, was the factor. But despite this showcase being predominately photography and film, the impingement the work had on me, and by what i saw, on others, was immense. Does one need to be affiliated with the name Guy Bourdin, to be enticed, excited or to comprehend the work in context? Most definitely not. With me, i took a Bourdin-virgin and by the time we had reached the second floor, she too, were hooked.

“Legs and shoes” were the first thing she said to me, having realised that the majority of Bourdin’s work is rather affiliated with legs and shoes. The ground floor encapsulates all that one could hope for in a Bourdin exhibition. There are glass cabinets enveloping sketches, book and notes, whilst the walls are left for the images. Small place-cards give only necessary information about each image.

Photo: Marianna Michael
Photo: Marianna Michael

The rooms may be vast in scale and lack little else than filled walls, but in the case of Guy Bourdin, this is all that is needed. The images are strong and fall into the category of strongest images in fashion, alongside Tim Walker (whose exhibition was also held at Somerset House), Helmut Newton and Steven Meisel, and more recently, being joined by the likes of Rankin and Nick Knight. These are not photographers who take pretty pictures, though many have- these are photographers who have made statements, liven dreamlike concepts, influenced generations and that have become world-renowned.

Colour and concept is, quite literally one of the greatest aspects of Bourdin’s work, which becomes increasingly prominent on the second floor of the exhibition, where some of his most famous and like images are hung. It is hard to linger at each photograph for several minutes, or longer. The images are aesthetically striking and pleasing. They often evoke questions. They often evoke emotions and strong ideas. Sometimes, they are just beautiful. And other times, you see whereby more modern advertising campaigns, editorials and television adverts have taken influence.

Photo: Marianna Michael
Photo: Marianna Michael

“The images on display are indeed striking: disembodied legs wearing elegant shoes skip lightly across urban streetscapes, beaches and parklands; beautiful, semi-clad women lie splayed or languorously draped across furniture in anonymous, moody interiors or merge with the landscape, and arachnoid conglomerations of legs without bodies appear both menacing and seductive. While many of the images are overtly sexual or disturbing, such as a naked model appearing ‘dead’ on the floor with a vivid pool of red liquid (blood? Nail laquer?) streaming out of her mouth, or a model clad only in satin lingerie pulling a phone cord tightly against her crotch, the images convey the same sense of desire in their sensuous textures, dynamic composition and bold colours.” – Londonist

Prints, polaroids and paintings. That’s what can be found in the expansive space. But it is the room on the second floor containing film which is by far one of the most evoking. As you stand in the centre of the room, you are sounded by curved screens and vibrant moving-images.

Photo: Marianna Michael
Photo: Marianna Michael

This retrospective brings to light, not just the variety of work Bourdin created over his lifetime, but the extensive amount of work which is truly intriguing. It is therefore befitting that Books, postcards and posters are on sale, alongside the Nars X Guy Bourdin Collection.

Strand, London WC2R 1LA

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