Guy Bourdin: Image Maker

Legs, shoes, legs, shoes… It’s definitely fair to say that French fashion photographer Guy Bourdin has a thing for women’s legs and shoes. Having not seen much of Bourdin’s work, I was looking forward to seeing Image Maker at Somerset House this weekend.

Displaying over 100 works including photographs, paintings and Polaroids, this exhibition occupies the Somerset House galleries with vibrant, surreal images of fashion photography at its height throughout the second half of the twentieth century. The exhibition marks itself as a narrative of the life and work of Guy Bourdin, an artist who certainly deserves the title of Image Maker. There are endless works to be discovered throughout the dark, tunnelled spaces of Somerset House. Bourdin’s huge collection of photographs are on display with a rare selection of his paintings and Polaroid prints. The curators Alistair O’Neill and Shelly Verthime have also chosen to display an assortment of Bourdin’s sketches and notes. These demonstrate Bourdin’s work strategy, revealing the depth of planning and thought which went into each of his fashion focused photographs.

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I was surprised to discover the heavy surrealist references in Bourdin’s imagery. As a protégé of Man Ray’s, Bourdin was clearly influenced by the surrealist master; many of his works are dark and dreamlike, with an element of the uncanny running through them. The exhibition space helps to add the correct atmosphere to these works, with dim lighting and low, curved ceilings – it almost feels like you could be one of his subjects in a film noir-esque scene, crisscrossing through dark passage ways whilst he captures your tiptoeing feet. By using themes of surrealism and pop-culture, consumerist storylines, Bourdin established a dramatic change in the role of fashion photographer. He took the background setting and announced its primary importance in the work; therefore putting the product – clothes, accessories, make-up – second to the overall image.

Highlights from the exhibition include Bourdin’s mannequin like models in his 1978 photograph of a scantily clad woman in a recently opened box – Boudoir Barbie; and in his death-by-art print featuring a silky dressed woman lying frozen beneath the fallen frame. Bourdin’s eye for colour palettes in his range of work is admirable – another detail of the exhibition which introduces pop-pinks and zingy-oranges to the moody lit galleries.

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Guy Bourdin: Image Maker is on at Somerset House until the 15th March, open daily between 10am and 6pm (9pm on Thursdays) – don’t miss this major photographic exhibition.

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