Los Angeles

Guy Bourdin

His annus mirabilis was 1976. While continuing to work for long-term clent Roland Jourdan of Charles Jourdan shoes, Guy Bourdin created advertising campaigns that year for Gianfranco Ferré, Complice and Callaghan (designed by Gianni Versace), Madame Grés, and Loewe, among others, and still managed to put together his dazzling “Sighs and Whispers” lingerie catalogue for Bloomingdale’s. In some sense the only “book” he published of his work in his lifetime, this eerie opus is an influential combination of commerce, fashion, and art—well, if not art, then photography as its unruly, promiscuous doppelgänger.

Bourdin is frequently called a surrealist, a term that fails to account for his sly, sexually and psychically spiked images. Too many critics invoke his difficult childhood to explain the implied violence, troubled atmosphere, and misogynist undercurrents of his early work rather than noticing his reworking of Atget’s mannequin windows or the cold influence of Irving Penn. Freudian childhood sleuthing occludes the fact that a rupture occurred much later, sometime in the mid- to late ’60s. Perhaps it was the events of ’68 that caused the détournement; certainly that year (Bourdin’s fortieth) marks the beginning of the work that can properly be called Bourdinian. (For those who smirk at the idea of a fashion photographer as politico, consider that Bourdin’s first experiences behind the lens took place during his stint as an army photographer in Dakar, Senegal, where he moved in a circle of pro-independence Senegalese intellectuals.) After years of its being no more than latent in most fashion work, Bourdin, ca. 1968, demonstrated the coma effects of representation—resemblance itself figured as the cadaverous—in vivid Technicolor.

Think Maurice Blanchot on a fashion shoot. In Blanchot’s 1948 novel Death Sentence, an unnamed male narrator haunts the hallways and rooms of various expiring women; he demonstrates a perhaps too familiar knowledge of poisons and perfumes and a penchant for witnessing last words. Bourdin’s photos trace the consequences of the jouissance overload, sex and drugs (and color) taken a step beyond the recreational. He puts the unpleasure back in the pleasure principle, right where Freud always said it was. A shiny red liquid oozes out of white electric sockets in a spectacular 1975 spread for Charles Jourdan and spills on the floor in a shot for the 1980 Pentax calendar. Looking like nail polish or melted lipstick, the killer red signifies blood but is pigment, seeping neutrally between the metaphoric and the actual.

Sadly, this smattering of Bourdin’s work, newly minted editions of photographs by a man who kept his own prints in a shoebox, lacked the veneer of critical dialogue or curatorial finesse. It was useful only to compare how much darker many of the photos appear in the recently released volume Exhibit A, an important and exhilarating collection of Bourdin’s images for magazines. One of my favorites is from a 1977 Vogue Hommes shoot of Ted Lapidus suits. A dazed, slightly disheveled man sits in a dark room watching a television-size glowing blue clock, while in the background a nude lover shaves or cleans up after business finished. The clothed man pauses from his can of Schlitz; dozens of empties surround him, and stacked cases of Schlitz are visible in a closet’s shelves. The scene is ominous and awry, theatricalizing the loopy sadness of sex and interpersonal transactions. Bourdin achieved similar strangeness with overly made-up little girls, JonBenet Ramseys avant la lettre. With keen economy of means, and no digital effects, the images make much contemporary photography feel tired by comparison. That he worked in the context of the fashion magazine and advertising is only another lesson in art’s and photography’s elsewhere.

Bruce Hainley