This was the first web site dedicated to the work of Guy Bourdin. The first time I looked at the worldwide web in the winter of 1997, I looked up the name Guy Bourdin on Altavista but there was only five tiny images and a New Yorker magazine article by Anthony Haden-Guest. Three years later nothing had changed, so in the spring of 2001 I decided to create a tribute to him myself with the small selection of his work I had in my possession. About three months before when I was in Switzerland to do the final editing of my own photographic book, Bernadinism: How to Dominate Men and Subjugate Women, I suggested to my publisher he should considered him for a book. He kind of vaguely remembered him. Unknown to me though, there was already a book in the pipeline that would hail the return of Guy Bourdin. Exhibit A was published that October, a month after my own.
Even before his death in 1991, it seemed to me he had been forgotten. I first encountered his work in 1984 in an advertising annual called Modern Publicity. There were about four shots from a Charles Jourdan campaign which resonated with me. I saw another couple of pictures elsewhere and wondered if he had published a book as I wanted to see some more. The next year I came across his work in French Vogue and followed it until he disappeared from its pages in 1987. I stumbled across a spread of his work in a magazine called The Best but that was the last time I saw his work before his death.
One thing very noticeable about the Bourdin layouts in French vogue was the use of white space around his pictures. In an age when virtually all landscape format pictures were presented as full bleed double page spreads, his would quite often go across just one page or only partially across two. The horizontal pictures across one page was almost the 3:2 proportion of a 35mm frame that made me think he shot with a 35mm camera, but it seems he cropped his square format Hasselblad images to that proportion. There was never any text across his pictures and the white space had the credits. Even with a vertical picture there was usually a stripe of white close to the centrefold that contained his name. His reputation was such that he was more or less allowed to design his own layouts. He had 20 pages a month. You can see the same thing in his layouts for Charles Jourdan and late in his career shooting Ungaro ads with Anouk Aimée.
Even while still working for French Vogue in his latter days, I feel he was already being forgotten. I would mention the name Guy Bourdin and no one would know who he was here in London. Unlike Helmut Newton who also worked for Vogue, and grabbed publicity at every chance, Bourdin refused to have exhibitions, publish books or sell his work to collectors, wherein lies the reason he was forgotten at this time.
In 1990, I went to see a magazine in Paris whose name I think was Madame. The art director’s name was Duc and he was recovering from a bad motorbike accident. He could have been Vietnamese but I am not sure. I mentioned Bourdin and it turned out he was once one of Bourdin’s assistants in the 60s. When Duc had finally left Bourdin to setup on his own, Guy contacted some of his clients, who phoned him to offer him work for which he was very grateful. We spent the whole afternoon in his office talking about him. He had become Guy’s assistant because Guy had a great selection of the latest American records. During the swinging 60s Duc, while standing waist deep in a pond in Hyde Park working for British Vogue, reached out with both hands to to adjust the model’s clothes, forgetting the the camera strap was no longer around his neck. He had to finish the shoot with the stylist’s point and shoot camera. He also sold a gull wing sports car to Tony Curtis. Latterly he had given Bourdin a job but the pictures were so bad that he could not use them. The following year Bourdin died of stomach cancer.
In December 1996 Dreamgirls, a documentary about his work and life was shown on BBC2. I had to miss it because i was out of the country and it was four years later that I eventually got to see it after tracking down a copy at the BBC. Mine had a big timecode across it. In 1997 Dutch magazine did a feature on Bourdin and I used some of the pictures when I uploaded the site. I also scanned some tear sheets collected by a friend.
One of the people who contacted me early on told me that one day a friend of his was passing by the Vogue offices and on the pavement bags of Bourdin material being thrown out. That is how far Guy’s star had fallen. He saved some of it and took it home. I imagine they were probably prints and transparencies from published work. I have no idea who this person was.
Along time after seeing the Bourdin documentary I stumbled across an article in a magazine about Michel Bourdin, Guy’s half-brother (he was younger by 15 years). It transpires that he was head chef at one of London’s premiere hotels, Claridge’s. He has since retired.