Guy Bourdin was born in Paris on 2nd of December 1928. His father was Spanish and his mother Belgian. His parents separated when he was still an infant and his father still only 18. He went to live with his paternal grandparents who had a house in Normandy and a restaurant in Paris named the Brasserie Bourdin. His father remarried and Guy moved back with him and his step-siblings. Under the guise of doing his homework he would sketch on the napkins. There were two telephone booths side by side in the Brasserie Bourdin and every time his mother called, his father or stepmother would lock him in one of them so that he could speak to her. This made him terribly angry in later life and he would often tell this story. He only saw her once. She came into the restaurant and gave him a present. His abiding memory was of a made-up elegant Parisienne with pale skin and pale red hair. Hence the reason why women with pale skin and red hair haunted his pictures years later.
Cycling was one of his loves. At the age of eighteen he went on a cycle tour of Provence where he met Lucien Henry, an art dealer. He stayed at his house for six months where he seriously applied himself to drawing and painting and decided to become an artist. When it was time for his military service he ended up in Dakar as an aerial photographer in the Air Force.
After his military service he returned to Paris and found a job as a salesman of camera lenses. He still drew and painted and started taking pictures for himself. The seminal moment in his life came when he saw Edward
Weston’s 1930 photograph, Pepper. That photograph changed his perception of the medium and changed the course of his life.
He was influenced by Surrealism and of all the Surrealists his greatest influence was Man Ray. He knocked on his door on six occasions and was turned away by Man Ray’s wife. On the seventh Man Ray himself answered the door and invited him in and they became friends. He even wrote the catalogue text to Bourdin’s first exhibition in 1952.
Two years later at the age of 27 he went to see Vogue who offered him a job. His debut was four pages of hats. One of the pictures featured a woman standing below three skinned calves’ heads. It was a bravura statement that marked out the direction of his style as a photographer.
Bourdin’s chief collaborator was Francine Crescent, who joined Vogue in 1957 as accessories editor and eventually ended up as director in 1977. She first worked with him in 1960. By the time Bourdin was 36, he insisted on full control of his shoots, often chose the pictures to be published himself and overlooked the layout of his pictures. When she was asked by a shoe company, Charles Jourdan, to suggest a photographer for their forthcoming advertising campaign, it was Guy Bourdin she suggested. He insisted on total creative control and that is what he received even though the company was a little frightened. The first photos were a shock and Roland Jourdan received letters saying that the campaign was awful but he stuck with him and never refused a Bourdin picture. From 1967 he produced brilliant campaigns that were eagerly awaited by the media.
Guy Bourdin peaked in the seventies, and according to Serge Lutens who he gave a start to as a make-up artist, Bourdin was the master at Vogue – they had suspended all their critical faculties and said how wonderful his work was even before they had seen it. He was given twenty pages per month of fashion or beauty and he loved to travel to produce them. He also tried working on Italian and American Vogue but they refused some of his pictures so he stopped.
The other regular at Vogue was Helmut Newton and his largely black and white visions of the sometimes SM sexuality of haute bourgeoisie played out in well-appointed apartments, hotels and grand houses. On the other hand Bourdin’s sensibility was much darker and in colour. His pictures were claustrophobic and alluded to violence, lesbianism, sadomasochism and death. Every month there was a competition between them pushing the sexuality in their work to the limits of what could be published by a fashion magazine. They respected and were interested in each other’s work but were not friends. Guy was not really friends with people, according to Francine Crescent. He was very reserved and people had to be reserved with him also.
Bourdin did not look like a fashion photographer but like a peasant and had podgy little peasant’s hands. He was a dark genius who expressed himself through the medium of fashion photography. He portrayed a dark side, but in Technicolor. His pictures are about the problems of desire and of connecting with women. The best of them trouble the viewer and linger on the mind. His work hints at narrative and has a cinematic quality – sometimes a Hitchcock feel.
Bourdin had a studio in the Marais district of Paris that was rundown and painted black with blacked out the windows, no office and no telephone and no way to reach the outside world. There he would build his sets and work at all hours of the day or night. The toilet was down in the cellar along a dark corridor and the models, who would be scared of rats and mice had to cross two wooden planks to get to it. This amused him. He had an impish persona and would play music and scamper back and forth and giggle in a corner. Bourdin would make a drawing and work towards it, then think of some other picture to do. Although he used a Hasselblad, which is a square format camera, he regularly cropped his pictures to almost the same ratio as a 35mm camera. He favoured a deathly pallor to the skin and doll-like make-up of the face – he knew the shock value of images of death and glamour. He was difficult on himself and on others too. He wanted perfection. Perfect hair, perfect everything.
Outside of the studio, he loved to travel abroad but would go repeatedly to his native Normandy. He could transform a corner of the outside world into something extraordinary. He would use artificial light and eliminate the sky or reduce it to a thin sliver and the picture would be made claustrophobic. Bourdin walked everywhere and observed what was around him.
Bourdin’s private life too was also dark. According to his half brother, Guy, like their father was hard on women. They treated women as the servant of a man rather than as a companion. Their father kept a picture of his business in his wallet but not his family. The second Madame Bourdin was kept working in the business for three years without going out. Guy also had a similar relationship with his wife. He would not let his wife work and she was trapped in a fifth floor apartment. Nobody would go up there and the phone would not be answered and he endeavored to make sure she had no life outside of him. They had one son, Samuel and she looked after his accounts while he paid no attention to money. Once, when he was away in Normandy she hanged herself. Serge Lutens also remarks on the misogyny he perceived in him, describing how he would make models kneel on all fours and hold uncomfortable positions and would draw it out as long as possible, enjoying his power over them.
By the mid eighties Bourdin was in decline. Francine Crescent had left French Vogue in 1987 so he had no one championing his work and they began to refuse some of his pictures. He became more demanding and difficult to work with. Fashion photography was also moving towards a “naturalistic” style and away from the contrivances of the seventies and Bourdin’s golden decade was behind him. He was also pursued by the French state for the non-payment of taxes and tormented by personal crises. He spent much of his time painting canvases that he never finished and eventually died of cancer 29th March 1991 age 62.
Bourdin often talked of exhibiting his work or producing a book, but he never did. Maybe he was trying to crystallise his work into some bright and shiny jewel before he could put it out, but that never happened. If today he has largely been forgotten and not as illustrious as his contemporary, Helmut Newton, it is because he wanted it that way. A lot of his work has been lost or deteriorated due to bad storage. He refused to sell his work to collectors and did not like pictures of himself published. Bourdin even refused the Legion d’Honneur saying that it did not fit into his way of living or thinking. He strived to make his images as perfect as possible but once they were published they were dead to him. He had already moved on. It is as if he was more interested in the process of creation than the final image itself. He was a perfectionist and the curse of perfectionism is procrastination and ultimately dissatisfaction.
Alva Bernadine, 2001