Saturday, August 22, 2015

Guy Bourdin, Image Maker at Somerset House

Born in 1928 in Paris, Guy Bourdin was a protege of Man Ray, working closely with Conde Nast for a large part of his career as well as shooting ad campaigns for a number of big fashion brands.

This show uses its title 'Image Maker' in several senses, reflecting how thoroughly staged the work is but also how influential it has been on other photographers. It is also presumably refers to Bourdin's success in positioning the Charles Jourdan shoe brand in the 70s.

Here we see pure advertising - albeit ground-breaking, iconic, ingenious.

There is footage from some of the shoots and Bourdin's journey with the legs recorded on a Super 8. It is very fast (speeded up?), unedited, choppy, showing lots of action. We see signs, brand symbols (car hoods), lots of legs, seaside, views through windows.  He has thoroughly explored the idea that something doesn't have to be 'attractive' to attract attention. 

I expected to find the deconstruction of his models into body parts to be abhorrent to my militant feminism but I found myself responding fairly neutrally. It seemed to me that the mannequin legs placed in mundane surrounds served well to draw my attention to the shoes. I do not conform to the female stereotype of having a shoe obsession but I still found the footwear to be the most attractive aspect of most of the Jourdan images, as intended. There is no distraction, there is no woman (to be judged by the male/female gaze).

I was struck by how many of them remained unpublished and wondered what had been the criteria for the rejection.

We see the legs and try to make sense of what we are seeing and have to reconstruct the story. This is a confident woman. She goes places, she has sexual partners, she makes people drop ice creams at the beach. Metal fences collapse in her wake. Planes take off all around her.

These are not soft, feminine landscapes. Bourdin roots her among strong lines, shapes and textures, high contrasts, borders and barriers to contain the landscape. The scenes are mundane, industrial, characterless.

This bland backdrop allows some tremendous subtlety with lighting and colour. In some cases just the smallest glint of light or matching colour picks up the shape or colour or the leather of the shoes. 

It is hard to imagine how this would have been received at the time but it certainly seems to have been ground breaking - not least as the ads were run across a double page spread rather than the usual single page at the time.

Bourdin used staged locations, lots of artificial light and mirrored reflections.  He seems to have favoured wide vistas, graphically framed by man-made barriers and structures to suggest containment.  He demonstrates an understanding of a place to inform how he positions his models within the context of his vision for the image.

Much of this exhibition feels full of movement and energy; a high-gloss obsession with beauty and form with strong blocks of rich colours. The women are often passive – critics have commented that the models often looked to be injured or dead.  Bourdin succeeded in extending the parameters of what fashion photography was all about and what it could convey.  He uses narrative and suspense and this visual storytelling continues to be popular today.  He borrows from surrealist artists such as Magritte and Luis Bunel to create images which disrupt the senses through a mixture of disturbance and delight.

This was a fascinating show as it contained a wealth of imagery that would not normally appeal to me. This gave me the opportunity to look at it objectively. I did feel his output seemed very French and I would love to be able to dissect this more. Bourdin succeeds in transforming the banal to the beautiful which surely is the dream of most advertising execs, whilst his imagery contains filmic ambiguity to engage the viewer.

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