New York

Guy Bourdin


Before Guy Bourdin was a great fashion photographer (perhaps best known for his work for French Vogue in the ’70s), he was a modest artist, in search of the visually unexpected for its own sake. As evidenced in this show of early black-and-white photography, he was less a manipulator and more a discoverer, and what he discovered was abstraction, as the natural grace of the world. One’s surroundings became spontaneously abstract, if one only knew how to look; no matter how ordinary, they blossomed into perfect form.

That’s the lesson of the marvelous Spring, 1960, a simple epiphany of the eponymous season. The stark seriality of a white fence is interrupted by a proliferating plant that surges through it. The abstractness of both fence and plant is conspicuous: The organic appears as ceaseless gesture—expressionism on a rampage—while the fence exemplifies an unyielding geometric order, a kind of mute minimalism. Something similar occurs, if less melodramatically, in a nearby photograph (this one untitled) in which vegetation impinges on rather than overwhelms a black fence. The tension between constraining fence and uncontainable growth, the sense of an indifferent barrier being impulsively stormed or challenged, is a metaphor of existential conflict that recurs throughout Bourdin’s imagery. (Sometimes the terms are reversed: In another photograph, an exuberantly decorated chair seems far less inhibited than the woman hiding behind it.)

As a fashion photographer Bourdin dealt almost exclusively with adult women, but in his early work he was often preoccupied by prepubescent girls. The woman behind the chair is seductive because she is unreachable—her game of peekaboo raises the emotional stakes—but the girls are completely within the camera’s reach. Bourdin, however, is not Balthus; he admires the undeveloped bodies as a series of purely abstract lines. There is no hint of prurience in a picture of a young girl in virginal white frock, her arms behind her, in front of what can easily be read as the back of a canvas. It is art, after all, not life—or art as extracting and framing the tensions lurking in life—that interests Bourdin.

The idea that life is an occasion for art recurs in the ironical, undated Fete, which shows a graffiti-like shadow of a head and the imprint of hands on a wall. The trace has become more important than what it traces. The human figure exists at an abstract remove from which it can never return. In all the artist’s early work human beings seem to be secondary objects in an empty world of passive space. Bourdin was clearly prepared to accomplish the mission of the fashion photographer, which is to make clothes stand on their own as sort of abstract things in themselves—pure forms.

Donald Kuspit