Arles – 7 – Guy Bourdin

The OCA group meets in the foyer of The Open College of the Arts where Gareth Dent gives an introduction to the 2 day visit; some have had to walk out of town and over the bridge to be present but it is not too far. The walk back in town to the Espace Van Gogh does not take much time yet we are forced to wait outside for longer since there is some difficulty in procuring the tickets.

Stephanie Dhubert

Stephanie Dhubert

As we do so, I photograph a fellow student, the charming Stephanie D’Hubert, a Frenchwoman who lives in Chicago. Her blog on Bourdin is worth reading and she has commented on this blog (see comments at the end).

OCA group - tutor Sharon Boothroyd left, Catherine, Brian Cooney, a little of Rob TM and Gareth Dent OCA CEO

OCA group – tutor Sharon Boothroyd left, Catherine, Brian Cooney, a little of Rob TM and Gareth Dent OCA CEO

The first exhibition we, The Open College of the Arts, see as a group is by the late Guy Bourdin, a French fashion photographer about whom I know next to nothing other than the name. The exhibition is a body of work curated from the Guy Bourdin archive. Bourdin was a French fashion photographer who lived and worked inParis during the second half of the twentieth century.Fashion as a form of photography does not exert much interest on me but any exhibition of well-made photographs is worth seeing. The photographs here are nicely crafted showing a good range of tones, pleasing compositions that often defy convention; many are small in size and being seen for the first time as they are drawn from the archive of Guy Bourdin.

a movie showing Bourdin's work with music from the time

a movie showing Bourdin’s work with music from the time

Bourdin did a lot of work for Paris Vogue often working in black and white, the medium of the day, although later work was made using colour materials; this is visible in a slide presentation called A Message for You at the end of the exhibition space where music from the time is also played helping to recreate the atmosphere of the era of which the photographs were also an important part. The video A Message for You is taken from a previous publication of Bourdin’s work that has recently been reprinted in one volume.

His concerns were artistic rather than conforming to established techniques of portraiture. He is considered one of the “most daring and intriguing artists of 20’th century visual culture with a painter’s eye, he was capable of creating fascinating images in terms of story telling, compositions and colours, which explore the realms between the absurd and the sublime.” Bourdin sketched the lay out for many of his works drawing pictures and making notes; many of the compositions are highly imaginative.

writing from Guy Bourdin

writing from Guy Bourdin

Jesse Alexander talks to Miriam @ Guy Bourdin

Jesse Alexander talks to Miriam @ Guy Bourdin

A device that he used on many occasions was to insert a photograph into the making of another photograph; this approach could have different effects and often created contrasts of one kind or another. Violence does reoccur in Bourdin’s imagery yet it is not direct rather implied; one images shows a model attached to what might be a cross while “blood” flows from her nipples.

Many of the photographs are seductive. Yet, as is the way in fashion photography, the glamorisation of physical beauty, here almost entirely feminine, is in a sense a negation of feminine beauty. In a movie that plays repeatedly, we see a young and beautiful woman responding to the camera rather than posing; her expressions are not so much her own it seems but reactions to the male gaze. At the time this short film was made, the male gaze went almost unquestioned as critical deconstruction of images was seldom questioned.

students photographing the Guy Bourdin exhibition

students photographing the Guy Bourdin exhibition

This show has not been exhibited with the photographer’s co-operation since Bourdin has passed away rather it is a curated selection of work from an archive; this influences our understanding of Bourdin’s oeuvre. A 21’st century critical mind presiding over 20’th century work.

students discussing the "cow" photograph

OCA students discussing the “cow” photograph

There is a long discussion over one photograph “Chapeau-Choc” from Vogue in 1955 of a model wearing a hat while in the background one can see a line of veal heads, young cows slaughtered for the tender quality of their meat; the associations between the two can be read in many ways as the OCA group demonstrate. Anna Goodchild is the first to get the debate moving and start a stream of associations. Woman as sacred cow or just cow, the idea that fashion photography is a kind of cattle market for women. There is the myth of beauty and the beast implied here as well as the association between woman and death, a male reoccupation perhaps. The fact that the cow heads are veal (i.e. young) and the woman is also young creates more associations while my own idea that woman is insulted by being called a cow (“a stupid old moo!” in the fictional TV character of Alf Garnett) does not gain wide acceptance perhaps because of it’s derogatory nature. Another association focuses on the idea that the tongues of the veal that stick out are somehow teasing the woman.

There were lots of comments from OCA students; one however was wrong … the suggestion that the blow up was made by the archivist is wrong …. this was the cropped photo made by Bourdin. The full frame photo is included as a point of interest.

What to say of Guy Bourdin. He has been linked to many others including the surrealist Man Ray. here are a few quotes from “Extending the Gaze” by Gilles de Bure …

The black and white of the images softens the violence of the shock … closer to poetic realism in the French style than to surrealism … almost a way of stripping down the image to the point of removing its effect on the senses, but not its sense … great conceptual and formal engagement with the magazine as his sole artistic medium … highly stylised enactments of graphic violence … the figurative nature of his work … certainly outside the usual mould of fashion photographers … refusal to let his career overshadow his work … impossible to sum up.”

16 thoughts on “Arles – 7 – Guy Bourdin

  1. Hi Amano,
    Thanks for all this interesting and detailed posts about the visit.
    I am not very good at expressing myself clearly in English, and I am often misunderstood… but what I was trying to say about the dead cows ‘sticking out’ their tongues to the onlooker (and not the woman), is a reflection on the fact that I found Bourdin’s approach very playful even if also dark and violent in many cases. What I got from this picture was the Woman, with a big W, sticking out her tongue (through the intermediary of the cows) to the burden of convention and etiquettes she has to follow (fashion being one more convention disguised as a pleasure) . my idea is going in the same direction as Anne’s thoughts. It is just a personal reading, but I found the idea of the woman teaming up, and even ‘backed up’ by the cows really funny and meaningful.
    I am looking forward to read your other posts,

  2. Thank you for another interesting blog Amano. I passed quickly by this picture and had forgotten it – I missed the discussion, and it has been interesting to look at it again. I wish I could agree with Stephanie’s characterisation of it as playful and supportive of women but it certainly doesn’t look that way to me, given that the veal calves have been slaughtered for their meat after being confined in a fairly barbaric way. To me it is very much about death, of one kind or another, and the marketplace.

    • Like your comment Eileen—because instead of being dismissive of fashion photography [as so many are], you are see past that into the fact that Bourdin in his images is making a comment, subverting the industry of which he was a part.

      • Or are we reading into it what we want to read into it, bearing in mind 60 years (or thereabouts) have passed? Bourdin was, I guess, a surrealist at heart, so this might be tapping into that or may indeed be one of the many things that we discussed on the day. He’s not around to ask anymore, but he is someone I’ll be delving into a little more in future.

        There’s an interesting piece later on in UVC that deals with how woman are viewed, one that I perhaps brushed over a little lightly at the time, but thinking back I shouldn’t have. It really does relate to the video Amano mentions.

      • Ooh Rob, I’m going to disagree slightly here. Taking the stand that because fashion photography is/was dismissed as being inconsequential as ‘art’, the links between the photographer and their influences were often ignored or at least down played. Bourdin was mentored by Man Ray, and as an artist studied surrealism—like you, I’m going to be looking at this more closely. Think what’s really got me going on this thread is Ramamurthy’s disparaging comments about Blumenfeld and others ‘borrowing ideas and styles from art movements such as Surrealism’. [Ramamurthy, A. (2009) ‘Spectacles and illusions: photography and commodity culture’, in Liz Wells (ed.) Photography: A Critical Introduction. 4th ed; pp. 236]. Burns my butt, because I’m sitting with a 220pp book of Blumenfeld’s Dadaist Montages on my desk at the moment—the man was a card-carrying Dadaist—and yet his images are dismissed as simply ‘borrowing’ art ideas.

        But I am looking forward to the piece in UVC, so think will put my research on fashion photography as art on the back-burner till then. I get too easily distracted! Looking for the video that Amano mentioned though.

  3. Vicki, if you are referring to the video I mention in the text … “In a movie that plays repeatedly, we see a young and beautiful woman responding to the camera rather than posing …” then I want to point out this video was part of the exhibition. However, you can catch a glimpse of it here … where it runs from 1.08 to 1.16 into the video which is accompanied by a written piece about Bourdin’s exhibition at the festival.

  4. Vicki, I have now added a link to the slideshow of A Message for You as well as a link to the book which has recently been reprinted. I am surprised by the response to this post. Fashion is not something that greatly interests me but I can see that it is fertile ground for creativity rather than just commercialism. I need to consult my copy of The Photography Reader edited by Liz Wells.

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