Guy Bourdin: A Misogyny Theory
He was always tiptoeing to the edge of pornography and treat her models dismissively, but ending up at art.
During his 40-year career, legendary Parisian photographer Guy Bourdin changed the face of fashion photography with his radically daring, utterly captivating images that oozed drama, sex and intrigue. Guy Bourdin was born in Paris in 1928. While he was still an infant, his parents abandoned him. Some years later his father remarried and re-entered Bourdin’s life, but his mother remained absent. Bourdin only met her once; when her mother called him periodically at a restaurant and force him to speak with her by locking him into the restaurant’s telephone booth. The only memory Bourdin had of his mother was of an elegant Parisienne, heavily made up, with light red hair and very pale skin. His tragic story with both parents, especially her long-lost mother, has dramatically applied to photographs he worked for the past 40 years. We’ll tell you how.
Sex, Death, and Exquisite Shoes
Sex, death, and exquisite shoes are the legacy of Guy Bourdin. For the first two, we’ll try to break it down later. But shoes?
In the early 1960s, Francine Crescent, the editor of French Vogue, introduced Bourdin to Roland Jourdan, the head of Charles Jourdan shoes. This began a relationship that changed the nature of fashion photography forever because Bourdin is the first fashion photographer to shift the emphasis from the product to the image. The product–in this case, Charles Jourdan shoes–became an incidental aspect of the image. The shoes might be in the photograph, but the photograph was not of the shoes. Bourdin began to construct and photograph strange narratives that existed independently of the product.
This style turned out to be good for the magazine, which drew more attention and therefore generated more advertising sales. It was good for the product, even if was incidental to the image, because it brought attention to the brand. And it was also good for Bourdin, who was soon given unparalleled freedom to photograph whatever he wanted. By the 1970s, he was given complete artistic control over ten pages in each monthly issue of French Vogue. With that ultimate license, Bourdin began to explore even deeper his interest and style. He increased his images became still more abstract, even less concerned with the product and much more idiosyncratic, and overtly sexualized. He introduced concepts of violence, suggestions of perversity and expressions of death into his work.
Sadistic Treatment to Women
To Bourdin, casually sadistic treatment of women wasn’t limited to the photograph. His behavior toward his models, his wife and his girlfriends was neglectful and dismissive at best, cruel and abusive at worst. Bourdin wasn’t simply unaware of their suffering; sometimes he appeared to enjoy it. On one occasion Bourdin wanted to cover the pale bodies of two models in tiny black pearls. He had his assistants cover the models with glue and attach the pearls. The layer of glue interfered with the skin’s ability to regulate temperature and exchange oxygen; both models passed out. As his assistants hurried to remove the pearls and the glue, Bourdin is reported to have said, "Oh, it would be beautiful to photograph them dead in bed."
His indeed has strange conceptual fashion photographs. Take an extreme example at one image shot for Charles Jourdan shoes; Bourdin shows a woman collapsed on a bed, the nearby television playing and the silhouette of a young boy standing in the doorway. Obviously he had conflated the events surrounding the death of his wife and his girlfriend into a single image! It’s his true story of life; Bourdin dominated his wife and his various girlfriends, often removing their telephones, refusing to let them have visitors or leave their apartments, locking them in when he left. One of his girlfriends hung herself; her body was discovered by Bourdin’s 13-year-old son. Another attempted suicide by slashing her wrists. His wife died, apparently of a drug overdose while in bed watching television. So, yes, he recalled his troubled and disturbing story into his work and turn it into somewhat muse. His highly controlled images are famous for a mysterious sense of danger and sex, of the fearsome but desirable, of the taboo and the surreal. Whatever his intentions were, Bourdin has changed the way women were portrayed and chose to portray themselves in art and advertisements and music videos.
(No) Happy Ending
One interesting fact is that Bourdin refused to exhibit his photographs, refused all offers of publishing them in book form, and even refused to accept awards. His work appeared only in magazines. But when he died of cancer in 1991, a decade after, his work was published in book form. Two decades after, an exhibition of his photographs was arranged.
Guy Bourdin’s works have strong influence to the present days. But there’s only a few photographers could play with their dark side and create an extensive art. Bourdin’s misogyny and fascination with death and suffering, however, was pure genius, and troubling and disturbing at the same time. But the echoes of his work are still resounding in the fashion industry. His becoming an example of photography could also be a tragedy and far away from happy ending. Even if he tried to fill his work with sunshine, he always had a slightly macabre tone, combining death and glamour. With all that, it has been said that Guy Bourdin was a complex personality and a gloomy genius.