Somerset House | ★★★★☆
Guy Bourdin: Image-Maker at Somerset House begins with a largely unpublished series of surreal fashion images charting a road trip from London to Brighton with a car-load of Charles Jourdan shoes and a pair of mannequin legs. The legs strut across the frames, both a presence and an absence, suggesting eroticism but pointedly refusing to show it. In some shots the legs luxuriate in a bath, in others they appear to be spread in a bed while a woman looks on.
In the most striking, though, they simply gaze out to sea or stroll through a deserted seaside town. Bourdin’s relationship with the products his images are commissioned to sell is ambivalent; the shoes are always present but appear almost incidental, with the vacant, often wryly funny compositions taking precedence.
His fascination with high heels and shapely legs is continued in his more conventional fashion work, although “conventional” is hardly the right term. He plays with fashion stereotypes in a way that is now familiar but was then groundbreaking; a vacant model lies in a giant box as if she’s a doll that’s just been unwrapped. Others are coated in a thick glittering crust as if petrified – most suggest both sex and sexlessness.
The exhibition stresses his unprecedented attention to detail. As a painter – although not a terrific one, it must be said – he would often sketch his compositions before shooting. Later, he would send his editors only a single negative, and clear instructions on how his work should be laid out on the pages of the world’s most glamorous magazines.
These demands, though, shouldn’t be mistaken for egoism; unlike today’s celebrity fashion photographers, many of whom are heavily influenced by his work, Bourdin shirked the limelight, even refusing to have his photo in the Vogue contributors page. There were no books, no interviews, no exhibitions – until now.