If you were lucky enough to attend part of London Fashion Week, you may have found time to visit the Guy Bourdin exhibition at Somerset House; a fashion photography veteran, Bourdin’s career spanned four decades, during which his name became synonymous with late twentieth century fashion photography. This exhibition brings together not only an impressive selection of his early and late colour photography and editorial work, but contact sheets, sketches and film footage to give a complete picture of how he worked.
There’s a lot of good stuff here: a whole gallery is dedicated to a 1979 series of photos for shoe designer Charles Jourdan, in which Bourdin use of disembodied mannequin legs instead of a model is a clear nod to his Surrealist mentor Man Ray. The campaign was shot on a trip around the UK, and the quintessentially British backdrops make the photos (of which there are many) a lot more gratifying: a rose garden, a power station, a park, seaside beach huts and black taxis are reassuringly unglamorous.
Images from other editorial campaigns, beautifully set in Somerset House’s barrel-vaulted long gallery, are somewhat shinier, but share the Surrealist treatment of the female body, which the interpretive text refers to as “convulsive beauty”: a shadowy silhouette with an eye superimposed over the head; a sleeping head seen through a goldfish bowl; a perfectly triangular back with stiletto heels improbably balanced on the model’s shoulders; or three pairs of legs with a head popping out at the top. The contact sheets for this last image present a dizzying array of limbs repeated until it feels more as though you are looking at a colony of spiders than a woman’s body.
The main question raised for me as I wandered through the rooms was, what was his relationship with the female body? Bourdin seems to enjoy dismembering the female body, taking personhood and agency away from the models he used by treating their body (parts) exclusively as tools for display; whilst the exploitation of the female body as an advertising site is notoriously prolific today, in current editorial work there is more fashion for the model’s persona, in a wider narrative, and this was also true when Bourdin was working. As a fashion photographer he was atypical in prioritising what was usually perceived as lesser work, images of accessories, hair and cosmetics.
Parts of this exhibition are visually stunning, like the elliptical room with projections of his amateur footage from his photo shoots, and a small room with black and white shoots demonstrating his editorial processes for his Vogue commissions. However, the exhibition as a whole is let down by shoddy execution and some poor curatorial choices, and demonstrates why for me, it’s difficult to take Somerset House seriously as a gallery: the labels look as though they’ve been hastily made in a back office somewhere, normal standard paper stuck onto card and then cut roughly with a Stanley knife, and there is an inexplicable room dedicated to Bourdin’s paintings. These works are so painfully average, and quite frankly inept, it’s hard to understand why they were included, as they detract quite significantly from the picture the curators had been building of Bourdin as an artist who crafted beautiful images with meticulous care. If you pretend never to have seen this room though, you’re in for a treat.
Guy Bourdin: Image Maker at Somerset House finishes on Sunday 15th March 2015.
Copyright Disclaimer: I do not own any of the images displayed in this article.