Review of Guy Bourdin: Image Maker, Somerset House

From the glossy veneer of the pages of Vogue to the polished presentation of fine art, Alistair O’Neill and Shelly Verthime galvanise the work of Guy Bourdin within the galleries of Somerset House in Image Maker. Bourdin was the first photographer to present a fashion item through a crafted, complex narrative that is at once provocative, shocking, exotic and ominous. Truly legendary in his image making, Bourdin’s works were uncanny and mysterious, full of violence and charged with sexuality and surrealism.

Although the V&A hosted Bourdin’s first retrospective in 2003, the fashion photographer’s influence on contemporary visual culture remains even more prominent today. Image Maker is the largest UK exhibition of Bourdin to date, showing over 100 works, including a number of which have never been seen, as well as film, paintings and a glimpse into his working process with Polaroids, sketches and notebooks. The orange colour of the artist’s notebooks becomes a recurring staple throughout the design of the showcase, in a gesture correlating his use of vibrant, sensual colours that saturate his compositions.

From start to finish the viewer is offered a “behind the scenes” look into the photographer’s professional practice, giving audiences a glimpse of the man behind the lens. Each display is carefully curated, allowing visitors to jump from one photograph to the next, very much like flipping through the pages of a magazine. The large Super-8 film projection makes a big impression on the exhibition space, bringing to life to the various imagery. In the arches of the building there are explorations of Bourdin’s creative process with vitrines showing sketches and records of his pre-conceived visions. Hand written notes show his refined way of working, highlighting the details of the composition and stylistic choices, denoting the precision with which he made his images. The concepts within his work are further demonstrated in his paintings, as are the recurring motifs that can be identified. A rarity to see, these pieces convey the vast scope of Bourdin’s work and spotlight his practice as an artist. An archive of markups for magazine spreads is also on view, emphasising his exactitude when it came to the correct crop of an image and its presentation on the page.

A highlight of the exhibition is the larger-than-life circular panorama film projection that is as immersive as it is mesmerising. The films engage the viewer in a voyeuristic gaze, mirroring the model’s own. As early fashion films, Bourdin excelled in effortlessly capturing the candid. Over time, the artist’s photographs continue to reveal complex themes, stylistic design and intriguing narratives. Image-Maker explores Bourdin’s work across a wider context in this worthwhile exhibition of the exemplary photographer.

Guy Bourdin: Image Maker, until 15 March 2015, Somerset House, The Strand, London.

Ashton Chandler Guyatt

1. Guy Bourdin, Charles Jourdan, Spring 1976. ® Guy Bourdin.