Dark. Disturbing. Violent. Women as victims. The photos of Guy Bourdin often make people uneasy. Especially, given that these were commercial, fashion, photos that appeared in the pages of Vogue or in ads for Charles Jourdan shoes.
One might even question whether a company could still get away with using images of dead girls to sell expensive high heels in our current world of political sensitivity/correctness. But that would miss the bigger point.
Guy Bourdin was not just a fashion photographer. He was, above all, a Surrealist. Andre Breton once described Surrealism as a movement trying to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality.” That statement holds true to almost any of Bourdin’s photographs.
During the early-Fifties, Bourdin even studied with one of Surrealism’s leading figures, Man Ray. It is said, Bourdin went to Man Ray’s home six times to see him before finally being allowed to become his protege on the seventh.
By the time Bourdin hit his peak in the 70s, he was one of the most sought after photographers of his day. He was a regular contributor to Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. He shot major ad campaigns for Chanel, Bloomingdale’s, Pentax, and, the previously mentioned, Charles Jourdan.
Even then, people knew this was not the usual stuff of magazines and print ads. Something made even more clear after Bourdin’s death, in 1991. His work was canonized in the collections of MOMA, the Tate, the Victoria and Albert, the Getty and other major art museums around the world.
Let it be said, not all of Bourdin’s work was as dark as the images selected for this post. I have just chosen these images because, to me, they are the most memorable. The most daring. The most unique to Bourdin and his artistic viewpoint. They are his and his alone.
The only other fashion photographer to even come close to exploring similar ground was Bourdin’s fellow Vogue contributor, Helmut Newton. But even those photographs have a different take on them. A slant that is more about sex and leather and less about sex and death.
Any fan of crime fiction understands why these photos are so captivating. They are about the dark side of the human mind. They are about everything that intrigues us and all that makes us live in fear. They portray a side of ourselves, as humans, we don’t want to admit is even there. A side compelled toward violence, sex, murder, and insanity.
Of course, the vast majority of us are far too evolved to ever act on such primitive urges and instincts. Except maybe in our art and music. In the words of our literature. And, most of all, in our darkest dreams. The Surrealists knew all of this. So did Guy Bourdin. He just chose to sell us pretty clothes and sexy shoes with it.