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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”