Walking into the exhibition space at Somerset House, you find yourself surrounded by legs- dozens of them. Walking, leaning, hailing a cab- and all clad in impeccably stylish shoes. Welcome to the world of Guy Bourdin, where commercial photography meets fine art. Throughout the 1960s and 70s he worked for illustrious fashion institutions, including Vogue; however, rather than conforming to traditional fashion story shoots, Bourdin experimented with perception, perspective and boundaries of social acceptability. Somerset House uses cine films, sketches and Polaroids to show the process behind Bourdin’s most innovative and controversial work.
Bourdin’s famous series of mannequin legs was taken for an advertisement campaign for Charles Jourdan, a high-end shoe brand. Bourdin tackled the project by embarking upon a road trip around Britain in August 1979. He came up with an infinitely wide range of ideas as to the positioning of the mannequin legs. This resulted in shots of parks, roads, industrial sites, and even the bath. The images often seem less about the shoes than the setting. Bourdin’s picturesque Normandy upbringing is credited for his preoccupation with landscapes, which is evident in the Polaroids that Bourdin used to plan his images. By following his fascination with setting, Bourdin produced an entire fashion campaign without using a single model.
Bourdin’s favourite artists and movements frequently crept into his work, often resulting in images which were macabre, or borderline pornographic. He channelled Alfred Hitchcock’s use of suspense, as his photographs left the viewer on tenterhooks, wondering about the full narrative of the shot. For example, one image shows the outline of a body at a murder scene, with a pair of pink wedge shoes left as evidence. Was Bourdin portraying the owner of the heels as a femme fatale, or Hitchcock-esque ‘blonde victim’?
There are nods to the Surrealist movement throughout the exhibition, and especially to the idea of ‘convulsive beauty’, which simultaneously disturbs and delights. In one image, the model is covered with glass beads to give a distorted, yet ethereally beautiful, perspective on the human face. Bourdin also subscribed to more orthodox advertising techniques, such as the ‘Droste’ effect, which repeated a segment of the image over and over again. The most famous example of this is the ‘fingernails’ image, which hinted at Dali’s Surrealist repeated motif of hands.
Bourdin created video shorts of his shoots, known as cine films, using a simple Super 8 camera. Somerset House has devoted an entire room to these films, which give a sense of the movement of the models as they posed for that one perfect shot. The films produced an intimate insight into image making at a time when ‘behind the scenes’ video footage was not freely available. Other multi-media peeks into Bourdin’s work include his detailed sketch plans, which include the exact dimensions of subjects within the shot. Bourdin’s extensive artistic talents are also shown by his early paintings, which are hung side by side with the photographs that the paintings later inspired.
Guy Bourdin was not content with taking traditional commercial shots, which overtly advertised products and confined themselves to ‘fashion stories’. Bourdin’s stories were more likely to contain suspense, sex, and invisible women, as he played with the viewer’s perspective and pushed limits of acceptability in his subject matter. Somerset House displays the meticulous care with which Bourdin produced his photographs, showcasing Polaroids, sketches, and cine films, which Bourdin was at pains to produce and save. It is almost as if he was conscious of the fact that audiences in later decades would want to explore his innovative process as an image maker.
Guy Bourdin: Image Maker is in its final weeks, running until March 15th 2015.