As bold as Bourdin

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Guy Bourdin’s photos remain as arresting and influential as they were in his heyday. Now a selection of his finest are up for sale. Susie Rushton reports

Open any fashion magazine, and every time you see an editorial shoot or designer ad campaign starring a fantasy woman with porcelain skin, prone and naked save for a single, fetishised fashion accessory, a debt is owed to Guy Bourdin.

He was the trail-blazing fashion photographer of the 1970s who produced spread after morbid, glorious, vibrantly coloured spread for the pages of French Vogue, and ads for the shoe company Charles Jourdan.

His most famous picture shows the chalk outline of a murder scene, and a pair of pink sandals left forlornly on the pavement. In other pictures, women lie naked and face down in fields or under beds, appear to be stalked by other women, or hang upside down from gym hoops, legs akimbo.

In 1975, flinching at the decadence being promulgated in the pages of European fashion magazines – where Bourdin and Helmut Newton were, as the latter put it, “really shoving it down their throats” – The New York Times found Continental fashion pictures “indistinguishable from an interest in murder, pornography and terror”.

Where previously the fashion picture had been content to synthesise bourgeois notions of elegance with consumer desire – a smiling model in a beautiful dress, in short – Bourdin introduced to the genre psychodrama, implied violence, and deliciously ambiguous narrative. His pictures beg lewd questions. Is the redhead lying, blank-faced, underneath an enormous floral display in a funeral parlour? Were two women silhouetted on a screen, with only their shiny, pastel-coloured shoes peeping underneath, having a lesbian tryst in a café? For the first time in the history of fashion magazines, the product itself – the shoe or frock of the season – might only play a minor role in his pictures. After Bourdin, the fashion image itself, and not the featured product, was deemed to stimulate consumer desire.

Though he died from cancer in 1991, and did his best work 30 years ago, it is Bourdin who continues to set the benchmark for contemporary fashion image-makers. The photographers Nick Knight and Glen Luchford are among those who have admitted to falling under his influence; many others simply cannibalise it as a matter of course. In 2003, Madonna was forced to make an out-of-court settlement with the Bourdin estate after a few too many of the scenes from her “Hollywood” video looked like his shots; she herself had described him as “so sick and interesting”.

Bourdin was born in Paris in 1928. When his mother left him as a child, he was brought up by his father’s parents. He only saw his mother once: a pale-skinned redhead (and much has been made of the redheads who appear in his photos). He first picked up a camera in 1948 while on military service in Dakar, working as an aerial photographer. On his return, he banged on Man Ray’s door until the Surrealist made him his protégé, and in the 1960s started shooting for French Vogue, with editor-in-chief Francine Crescent becoming his greatest supporter. In 1967 he began his long relationship with Charles Jourdan, and did his best work for Voguein the 1970s.

He had a reputation as a sadistic taskmaster who once covered two models in glue from head to toe and then in jewels, leaving their skin no room to breathe – both women blacked out. Bourdin was certainly a perfectionist – that much is clear from the glossy veneer of his images, produced long before digital retouching. Deciding that the sea wasn’t blue enough, on one occasion he got assistants to pour dye into the waves, only to find the tide sucking it away. On another, he had a grey pylon repainted in a shade that better suited his exacting vision. He once said that his pictures were “just accidents”, continuing, “I am not a director, merely the agent of chance”, yet he planned them rigorously, first making sketches of the boxy, frame-within-a-frame compositions that make his work so arresting.

It is almost too easy to apply a biographical reading to his pictures – the tragic deaths of his wife and two girlfriends have provided plenty of grist to that mill – and Freudian interpretations of his repeated use of red-headed models or his supposed necrophiliac tendencies are popular among critics. But his only son Samuel Bourdin counters: “Some people were offended, the bourgeois, but that was a different time. He gets bad press in the Anglo-Saxon world, where a woman lying down means that she’s dead. But it’s fiction, a story, fashion, a product. Something interesting has to happen in an image.”

To simply be titillated by his pictures or angered by their abject portrayal of women – all fashion photography could, by its nature, be considered politically incorrect – is to risk overlooking his formal brilliance. Bourdin’s use of colour and texture, for instance, is startling. For a beauty shoot in French Voguein 1978, a forest-green background is interrupted by a reflected face in a mirror, held by a hand with blood-red nails. The effect is lush, humorous, close to Pop Art in effect. He uses walls, fences, lamp-posts and tree trunks to bisect his images, hide his models’ faces and create a tight grid on the image.

The usual problem of the gutter in a magazine’s double-page spread became a tool with which he created three-dimensional dramas – open the page and the story literally unfolds, left to right. He creates frame-withinframes, like his hero, the painter Francis Bacon; a favourite conceit is the photograph-within-a-photograph.

Along with Bacon, Bourdin admired Magritte and Balthus, and was a talented draughtsman.“We had a house in Normandy, and he’d look through his binoculars at people’s postures,” recalls Samuel. “He would take Polaroids. He always had a notebook.” He adds that his father also painted and had a profound knowledge of art.

Bourdin may be less well known than Helmut Newton, but maybe that’s because, during his lifetime, he never allowed his images to be taken out of the context of a magazine, and exhibited in a gallery or collected in a coffee- table book.And yet, in recent years, Bourdin’s work has been treated with the same gravitas as that of an “art” photographer. In 2003, a reappraisal of his work took place following a serious retrospective at the V&A. Since then, Samuel, the scrupulous defender of his estate, has allowed just a handful of books to reproduce his images.

Now, Bourdin’s reputation is being tested by market forces with an extensive selling exhibition in London hosted by the art auctioneers Phillips de Pury & Company. Forty-one new prints have been made, including a handful of his better-known pictures and some unpublished works taken from the archive.

Designed to seduce the eye and celebrate perfection, any fashion work is an accessible starting point for new collectors of photography. Last year in Paris, Phillips de Pury staged a similar show for Mario Testino to great fanfare. But Phillips are banking on Bourdin’s status as a past master of the craft not only to attract new collectors but also aficionados of fashion photography. “There’s been very little Bourdin on the market, and very few that have come up for resale,” says the chairman Simon de Pury. “So there’s a pent-up demand.”

This show also makes the bold step of transforming pictures originally intended for a magazine’s double-page spread into large prints – up to 40x44in.

Prices start at £12,000; the largest are editions of one. As the popularity of gigantic prints by contemporary art photographers Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth and Thomas Ruff have shown, to buyers, bigger currently means better. The effect of seeing Bourdin’s dynamic compositions and saturated colours, scaled up, is undoubtedly arresting. But certain photo experts are sceptical. “Some Bourdin images can take the larger sizes, and there’s no shortage of posthumous rethinking of photographers’ prints,” says Charlotte Cotton, head of photography at the LA County Museum of Art and curator of the V&A show, “but it’s a device that can contradict the image and runs the risk of misrepresenting the narratives that Bourdin actually proposed.”

Can the master of the Voguespread become a titan of the giant art print, 16 years after his death? And can a photo still be an artefact if it is an edition made without the direction of the photographer himself? The boundaries between art, fashion and photography are being redrawn all the time, but if fashion photography-asart is to be evaluated for influence, for how it defined an era, and for visceral appeal, Bourdin has more claim than most to the title of artist.

Unseen: Guy Bourdin is at Phillips de Pury & Company, Victoria House, Bloomsbury Square, London WC1 (020-7318 4023), to 24 November

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