Relentlessly dedicated to fashion and advertising photography, Bourdin notoriously shunned self-promotion and rejected the French government’s prestigious Grand Prix National de la Photographie. Even late into his 40-year career, Bourdin showed little desire to hang his color-saturated, violently surreal editorial photographs in galleries, despite having assisted in the transformation of editorial fashion photography into a legitimate art form.
For Bourdin, the magazine was the sole medium: He was so married to the form that he filed only specific, single images and indicated exactly where each should appear on the page. Originally trained as a painter and a protégé of Man Ray in Paris, Bourdin’s association with the avant-garde would later inform his surrealist and at times abrasive commercial photography. From the time of his first fashion shoots for French Vogue in the ’50s and ’60s, Bourdin created a distinctive, unnerving style: razor-sharp spreads featuring disembodied legs, precise visual tricks, and models posed as if dead. For nearly a decade, he worked closely with the shoe designer Charles Jourdan to create such visceral and iconic images.
Bourdin’s vision was so particular he was said to work only with models with specific astrological signs; in addition to lighting and placement he often styled the model’s hair and makeup himself. By positioning each element as part of this tightly controlled tableau—both during shoots and in terms of the magazine spreads themselves—Bourdin curated each image perfectly. Now, a collection of the artist’s work both infamous and obscure is on display at Somerset House, laying bare his forensic practice. The show, the largest ever in the UK, features over 100 photographs from Bourdin’s estate, including Polaroid test shots, contact sheets, and Super-8 films made at his on-location shoots. The show provides a rare glimpse of Bourdin’s process—a process so controlled it could be considered an integral part of his larger body of work, each images produced by an all-consuming methodology.