There are indeed very powerful photographs chronicling specific historical events that are almost embedded in our collective DNA.
In fashion, creating striking images, pictures that can contaminate our minds like viruses is vitally important since the saleability of a product often depends from the power of that specific image.
While there are quite a few fashion photographers out there able to take amazing pictures, I think there are very few ones nowadays who can imbue in their work strong, controversial and even shocking or disturbing messages like Guy Bourdin used to do.
In the 80s, when I was a young girl, it was very easy to find extensively long features about Bourdin not only in fashion magazines in Italy, but also on specialised publications for photography fans and professionals, such as the Italian edition of Photo.
The feature was a tribute to the late photographer who had died a month before and it opened with a rare portrait of Bourdin taken by Chip Simons in Paris in 1989.
Simons portrayed him saluting in a dark Parisian alley, the formality of the pose was given an ironic and surreal twist by the clothes pegs clipped here and there on Bourdin’s casual jacket and trousers and by the presence of the Eiffel Tower, reduced to an almost invisible presence hiding in the background.
When his images were first published in the 50s on Vogue, Bourdin shocked its readers both for his themes and format: indeed he dared introducing through his photographs a certain degree of eroticism in fashion while turning the double-page spread into an art form in itself.
Thirty years after, when provocation was the norm, Bourdin managed to preserve a fresh and controversial approach to photography and inspire other photographers such as Helmut Newton, Rebecca Blake, Cheyco Leidmann, Chris von Wangenheim, Steven Meisel and Steven Klein.
Bourdin's uniqueness stood in his use of colours and in that perfect staging of that mysterious dimension between reality and nightmare, recreated in minimal sets populated by objects, shadows and perspectives in which women were portrayed as the victims or the perpetrators of some unspoken crime.
At the end of the 70s Bourdin shot a campaign for Charles Jourdan shoes and he told Joe Moore, who at the time was the company CEO, that he was on a continuous quest for the most perfect image, yet the most perfect image in his mind was essentially represented by somebody on the brink of death, a rather frighteningly interesting concept.
For years Chares Jourdan’s shoes were identified with the controversial images produced by Bourdin, who was given carte blanche to take them. Another interesting story involving Bourdin and advertising is the one behind the images for Bloomingdales' catalogue: Bourdin was asked to take 36 images for this catalogue and allowed to have as models the most beautiful, famous and popular girls of those times.
The results were collected
in the "Sighs and Whispers" catalogue that became a sort of collectors' item as the decades passed since it was considered the only proper "book" featuring his work ever published in his lifetime.
All the images in the catalogue are characterised by a rather eerie quality that he achieved by letting the images speak for themselves and hiding behind them, stating at times that he preferred painting to taking photographs (he produced paintings under the pseudonym "Edwin Hamlan" and signed his drawings simply as "Bourdin").
I recently thought about Bourdin's palette and style while watching a video shot by English photographer Richard Burbridge for Nowness to celebrate the release in August of a new volume, entitled In Between and published by Steidldangin, that will feature 300 images taken by Bourdin and originally published in the British, French and Italian editions of Vogue, on Harper's Bazaar and other assorted fashion magazines.
Burbridge managed to capture the nuances and atmospheres that haunt Bourdin's alienating compositions, playing with the camera, framing the legs of the swimsuit-clad models suspended on gymnastic rings or the brightly colourful sheets of plastic wrapped around the models’ heads. Hopefully In Between will inspire in the future months further innovative experiments involving the Guy Bourdin palette and aesthetics in fashion, photography and film.