‘Better five minutes of happiness than a lifetime of conformity,’ Guy Bourdin (1928-1991) said in the spring of 1955. A new book of images by the late French photographer presents the provocateur as a young artist – Untouched, published by Steidl – bringing together early black and white photographs taken between 1950 and 1955, that have never been explored before.
The photographs were conceived for an unrealised exhibition series, and were taken before he embarked on the three-decade long relationship with Vogue Paris that he is best known for – and that would transform the language of fashion photography in the 20th century.
‘It was magic,’ says Shelly Verthime, the book’s editor and curator of the Bourdin Estate, recalling the moment she discovered the yellow Kodak box (now the book’s cover) containing the series of negatives – complete with cropping instructions and contact prints – buried in the artist’s archive. ‘The archival scent when I opened the box made it clear that it had been untouched for years and years.’
The curator explains, ‘As all my 17 years journey with Guy Bourdin was made out of fascinating coincidences and intuitions, when I pulled that box and I opened it was clear that if only because of the medium of this envelope it was different. When I opened each envelope – I realised there was much more - the negative was inside but there was a wider frame – much larger than the contact on top. It also told me more about his gaze into the image and how he zooms in with the framing by pen or by cutting the contact.’ Later, Verthime came across moquettes of the exhibitions walls Bourdin had planned.
Bourdin’s first encounter with the camera was in Senegal in the late 1940s, where he had been sent to work as aerial photographer in the Air Force in Dakar. When he returned to Paris, he obsessively sought out surrealist master Man Ray, who eventually took him on as his protégé.
These vintage prints bear the influences of both Man Ray and of Bourdin’s own attractions and observations of Parisian life: his proclivity for the sinister and the erotic in the everyday are clear in images of a female muse against a brooding landscape, or in the macabre face of a fairground ride. Another photograph shows his interest in shooting from experimental angles, and suggests an emerging foot fetish – a recognisable trope in his later work.
‘This is a surreal and poetic portrait of postwar Paris, and of a very young Guy Bourdin – just out of the army,’ Verthime explains. ‘It’s a subtle visual research, questioning reality, experimenting with cropping, framing, telling stories, with tight composition, the mystery – and the reflections – creating his own formal elements; but most of all these are clearly the studies that provided the structure for his future artistic signature. So, instead of revealing something we didn’t know, it is shows that from a very young he had the eye and that signature.’
The book, released on 14 October, to coincide with an exhibition at Galleria Carla Sozzani in Milan, is the first in a series of eight volumes that will comprehensively survey Bourdin’s oeuvre, in chronological order.
Galleria Carla Sozzani
Corso Como, 10
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Charlotte Jansen is a journalist and the author of two books on photography, Girl on Girl (2017) and Photography Now (2021). She is commissioning editor at Elephant magazine and has written on contemporary art and culture for The Guardian, the Financial Times, ELLE, the British Journal of Photography, Frieze and Artsy. Jansen is also presenter of Dior Talks podcast series, The Female Gaze.
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