Guy Bourdin was born, to a single mother, on December 2 1928, into a world full of flesh and adults – the 11th arrondissement of Paris, north east of the Bastille, west of the Père Lachaise cemetery. Even now, it is the most crowded place in the whole of Europe. When Bourdin arrived in it – as Guy Louis Banarès – it was more than half as packed again. He lived, with his mother, a few streets away from le Cirque d’Hiver where, in 1955, Richard Avedon would photograph Dovima with the Elephants.
Before he was one, his mother gave him away, to a restaurateur Maurice Désiré Bourdin who raised him, with help from his own mother, Marguerite Legay. It has been said that Bourdin only ever saw his mother once again and that she was a pale, elegant redhead – the archetype of the women in his pictures.
He started taking pictures in the late 1940s during his national service, with the French air force in Africa. On his return to Paris, he found friendship with Man Ray, the Brooklyn boy born Emmanuel Radnitzky but who had reinvented himself as a Parisian surrealist. Bourdin had a show of his paintings and drawings in 1950. Two years later, he had another show, this time including photographs and dedicated to Man Ray. The year after that, he had his first photography-only show, for which he – like his surrealist mentor – shielded himself behind a pseudonym, Edwin Hallen. The following year, his pictures were shown at the Whitechapel Gallery in London.
In February 1955, his first commission appeared in French Vogue. Though he would continue to draw and paint – and show his art – the rest of his professional and artistic life was dominated by his work as an advertising and magazine fashion photographer. He worked for French Vogue till 1987. ‘Chic, disturbing, and often surreal,’ was US Vogue’s judgment on that classic period of Bourdin’s photography. ‘In his glossy netherworld, beauty was extreme, and fantasy was grotesque and sometimes macabre.’ One of his earliest pictures for Vogue prefigured his later style: a red-headed woman in front of a white background, with a bright red cherry hanging from her teeth. Red and white: the colours of a Bourdin dream. The meanings of his photographs reside as much — if not more — in the ravishing slabs of colours as they do in the ravishing (and perhaps ravished, too) models.
He was the photographer for Charles Jourdan, the shoe company that made the Manolos or Jimmy Choos of its day. He had complete control. ‘I could not accept or reject what he did,’ said Roland Jourdan, the founder’s son who hired him. Bourdin’s photographs – strange, arresting, sometimes violent images, with deep, saturated colour – were used for the company’s ad campaigns from 1967 to 1981, when Roland Jourdan retired. These images alone give lie to the cliché that the 1970s was the decade style forgot. They hawked shoes but only in the most refracted way, by constructing a world which enticed you, threateningly, to enter – probably not without personal risk.
He worked for Harper’s Bazaar and both Italian and British Vogue. He shot ad campaigns for Emmanuel Ungaro, Chanel, Bloomingdale’s, Gianfranco Ferre and Claude Montana. He did calendars for Yashica, Issey Miyake and Pentax. Always, all of them were Bourdins – an artist’s images made in the heart of the commercial savannah but which nonetheless present a consistent, self-constrained vision.
That the word Bourdin-like is not part of the international art lexicon can only be put down to his personal disdain for self-promotion. As careful as he was with his work – pictures were planned carefully, with evocative pencil sketches – he was careless with his image and heritage. He even wanted his work destroyed after his death.
His work practices stumbled towards insanity. For a British Vogue shoot, according to Grace Coddington, he tried to dye the sea bluer. For French Vogue’s Christmas 1970 issue, he stuck black pearls all over two models. They passed out, it’s said. That is far from the only story of his cruelty to models.
He was a man best engaged not in person but at a distance, via his work. He was short, with a whine of a voice and a phobia about the colour green. His personal life was complex, unpleasant even. In 1961, he married Solange Gèze, kept her locked up in their apartment, then deserted her and their son. She died suddenly, most probably of suicide. There is a 1975 Charles Jourdain ad by Bourdin in which a woman (in orange wedge sandals) lies sprawled across a bed, dead, it seems. A young boy is in the doorway. A recreation of his wife’s death, it’s said.
A girlfriend, Holly Warner, tried to kill herself, but failed. ‘Guy was a very dictatorial person,’ she has said. ‘He had rules that were not aligned with normal behaviour.’ In 1969, another girlfriend fell from a tree, died. Bourdin took up with her best friend Sybille Danner – who, in turn, also committed suicide.
David Bowie says he’d regularly rip the phone out of the wall. He was wildly superstitious, only working with people born under particular star signs. Faced with a table of thirteen diners, he demanded a fourteenth be rounded up from the street.He turned up at Vogue’s Paris office on a camel. He told friends that he dreamed of using morgue corpses as models.
His images play – not always playfully – with the fractious edges of sexuality and violence, not just in their visual style but in their self-apparent and self-dramatising narrative quality. They give the sensation that something has just happened, you don’t know what, and something else might happen very soon. You’ve no idea what that might be either but chances are it will involve brightly coloured underwear, headsfull of long curly hair and legs spread arrestingly wide. Death and desire, that’s the Bourdin beat.
Serge Lutens, Bourdin’s creative stylist: ‘What Guy did was conduct his own psychoanalysis in Vogue.’ Bourdin’s half-brother, Michel, agreed. Head chef at the Connaught in London, Michel said of his brother: ‘He wanted to punish women because his mother let him down. He revolutionised fashion photography, made it into an art. But he was mad! Oh la la! He was genuine in his art, but a difficult person to live with.’
Like many another 1970s star, Bourdin was lost in the 1980s, broke and ill. At one point, he stripped naked in a tax office and told them they were Nazis. He was put in jail. He became a recluse, refusing to sell, publish or show any of his pictures. His name and work would only make its way back posthumously – and very slowly – into the public realm.
Even then, he didn’t always get credit. Madonna found just what she wanted in Bourdin’s work and so took it for her Hollywood video (2003). She found herself sued. She lost, too – a small revenge in the afterlife of fashion photography’s forgotten man.
He died in Paris, on March 29, 1991, of cancer, aged 62.
© Peter Silverton 2019