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Guy Bourdin
Vogue Paris -- April 1959

Vogue Paris -- Nov. 1975

Vogue Paris -- Dec. 1975

Bourdin personal archives

Vogue Paris -- Dec. 1977

Vogue Paris -- Dec. 1980

Vogue Hommes -- June/July 1977
Icon with a Nikon
by Joyce Caruso

It's a real shame that it's too late for an MTV Celebrity Death Match between Guy Bourdin and Robert Mapplethorpe. Imagine how the conversation might go in the MTV Green Room:

Bob: Hey, Guy, I really loved your French Vogue shot of the black girl's hands dripping in Harry Winston diamonds gripping that white girl's naked torso.

Guy: Thanks, Bob. I must say that your decapitation-style cropping of Lisa Lyons in the Liza Bruce bikini was tres me. I really don't care what you or anyone else does, but it was really pas mal.

Bob: Love it when you speak French, Guy...

With both of them gone for a decade-plus, fashion photography has been stripped of its two pet poetes damnes and some of the most arresting and artistically-rendered sex scenes ever committed to film -- black, white or color. Actually, it's Helmut Newton who was considered Bourdin's real rival, as both shot fashion -- primarily for French Vogue in the 1970s and early '80s -- provocatively laced with sex, high-heeled shoes and sly humor.

This month New Yorkers can take sides again as Newton and Bourdin have competing shows -- Newton at the International Center of Photography and Staley-Wise Gallery in SoHo, and Bourdin at Pace Macgill on East 57th Street. Unlike Newton, who of course is still posing models his granddaughter's age in compromising positions, Bourdin, who died in 1991, has lately slipped into obscurity. The Pace Macgill show and a new book, Exhibit A: Guy Bourdin (Bulfinch) aim to remedy that.

"How dare he be forgotten -- this giant?" says New York painter Joe Gaffney, who also photographed for French Vogue during the Bourdin era. "Guy was up there with God -- and Helmut, of course. Bourdin's specialty was an edgy mixture of eroticism and violence, and in fact his rather brutal treatment of models is legendary: he might let them freeze outside while he obsessively sought the perfect props for the shot, or glue hundreds of purple beads to their buttocks to recreate the perfect "plum" or pose them in the latest fashion hanging by their necks from ropes.

"He was given carte blanche both at French Vogue and Charles Jourdan," remembers Gaffney. "Total control was in his contract." It's been said that Newton pioneered Porn chic while Bourdin created Dead Chic. Newton's narratives are pristine and provocative; Bourdin's erotic and truly nightmarish. As in Mapplethorpe's work, the best of Bourdin gives off an unmistakable whiff of death.

One photo shows a tiny stuffed elephant lying on a girly pink carpet, while a naked female bottom and stocking-clad legs stick out from under the bed (Pentax calendar, 1980). Another is a photograph of an ersatz crime scene with a pair of pink wedgie shoes placed next to a young woman's body, outlined with chalk (advertisement for Charles Jourdan,1975). Still another posed a half-dressed model as St, Sebastian, tied to a tree with nipples bleeding. Who but Bourdin would photograph a girl on a horse in the Bois de Boulogne, modeling that season's Hermes riding jacket as she beats off a mugger with her crop (Vogue, Paris, 1971)?

How fitting that one of the all-time great fetishists would land a shoe campaign. And, although their sole photographer for 22 years, it's been said that Bourdin often "abused" the shoes in his legendary Charles Jourdan ads. The black pumps worn by a model wearing very little else who's stuck in a hole in the wall in a game of cat and mouse gone horribly wrong. Or the red spike shoes which dangle from the model, posed "Ecstasy-of-St-Teresa" style on a black leather couch, a photo of John Travolta between her legs. So 1979.

One of his former models, American Vogue's current fashion director Grace Coddington, only remembers the fun of it. "Guy had a wicked sense of humor," she said. "You just stood and watched him make his fantasies real. And it was all before the computer." People still talk of the time the photographer tried to dye the English Channel. What would he make of Photoshop?

It's form, of course, rather than content that interests photography fanatics. "The fashion wasn't the point; the models weren't the point," says Gaffney. "Mood was everything and the composition. Every Bourdin photo was fabulously composed. He wouldn't let art directors crop an eighth of an inch!" Color -- gorgeous, garish, shocking -- is another Bourdin trademark, and he used it as a painter would. Pascal Dangin, who make the prints for the Pace Macgill show, thinks this is because Bourdin started as a painter. "He thought in color -- he made sketches of everything before he shot it. When you see a nude on a garish pink carpet you know someone had to run out and find the exact color carpet to match the one in Guy's mind."

Some fans and scholars hope the new show and the book do more than restore Bourdin's reputation. "He's already on the books as one of the greatest all-time fashion photographers," says Alissa Schoenfeld of Pace Macgill. "We're hoping that presenting this body of work for the first time and the scholarship in the new book will prompt further consideration and that Bourdin will come to also be considered one of the great Surrealists."

True, like all bonafide Surrealists, Bourdin regularly explored the disturbing and often deadly aspects of desire. Just for fun, it seems, his two women kissing, heads completely covered in Kenzo hoods (Vogue, Paris, 1975) reverently rips off Man Ray's Portrait of Juliet (1945), which clearly pays homage to Magritte's The Lovers (1928). Dalí, Hans Bellmer -- Bourdin would have been familiar with them all.

In turn, it seems, every season another cool, cutting-edge photographer pays his or her respects to Bourdin: Gian Paolo Barbieri's Meat Market and Dominique Isserman's Maud Frizon High Heeled Pumps ad in the 1980s, more recently Nick Knight's disturbing computer-manipulated "blind" Chinese girl in an Alexander McQueen dress and Steven Klein's zombie girls in Kabuki makeup for Dolce & Gabbana (one very clearly dead) and David LaChapelle's Milkmaids for Stern Magazine where one topless model squirts breast milk into her girlfriend's bowl of cornflakes. Just four years ago Juergen Teller layed out on a carpet a seemingly dead young girl in black lace panties for a Katharine Hamnett ad. Whether acknowledging Bourdin or not, these pictures often refresh the too-often insipid and frivolous world of fashion. And like Bourdin, they reflect the manifesto so brutally put by Andre Breton: "Beauty will be convulsive or it will not be at all."

Bourdin's being a quality-control freak may have contributed to his obscurity. He forever shunned gallery shows, believing the photos would reproduce best in their intended medium: the magazine page. And he never promoted himself which in recent years spells professional suicide. "He was all about the work," says Grace Coddington. "Unlike so many photographers today he didn't want to be a star. He kept his work in a shoebox." Talk about fitting.

"Fashion magazines and advertising are just catching up with him now," says international stylist Freddie Leiba. "Gucci does some pretty provocative stuff. And magazines like ID, Nylon and Dutch --they're all incredibly indebted to Guy."

The week the Bourdin show opened there was an unwitting tribute in the windows of the Victoria's Secret shop right next store on 57th Street -- a crowd of nearly naked female mannequins, all disembodied legs in black stockings. Rather than all the young photographers taking him as their patron saint, the poete damne no doubt would have preferred this.

The Guy Bourdin show is on view at Pace Macgill until Oct. 20, 2001.

JOYCE CARUSO writes on art and culture.