Models in high heels, rictus poses, skin dappled with putrefaction, desperation, hysteria, illicit sex and claustrophobia - Bourdin's photographs could be exhibits from some 'black museum' of haute stylisme.
As one of the most sought-after fashion photographers of his time, Bourdin was permitted an almost unimaginable degree of freedom to create images that are both disturbing and confounding. His almost forgotten photographs expose unspeakably personal manias, fantasies of sex, death and exquisite footwear.
Bourdin's morbid and decidedly theatrical photos, brought together for the first time in Exhibit A (Jonathan Cape/Bulfinch, 2001), are peopled by a collection of female characters from the stylish, erotic thriller that seems to have been constantly running inside his head. They are meticulously constructed scenes of surreal Technicolor tragedy. Many of the pictures show the aftermath of some fatal event: a dead body glimpsed through a half-open hotel doorway, another prostrate in a grassy field. The models' heads are often cropped from the image, leaving only the trunk or the legs; sometimes there is no model at all, just a single shoe by a bleeding electrical socket, or a bloody crime scene beautifully accessorized by Charles Jourdan.
The campaigns for Jourdan in the 1960s and 1970s remain Bourdin's best-known work: there were the well-heeled corpses, of course, but also disembodied multi-legged creatures springing like spidery Rorschach blots from magazine centrefolds and bright yellow patent slingbacks mutated to gigantic proportions, really everything the refined fetishist could possibly desire. In one clandestinely erotic photograph published in 1977 a uniformed lady's maid is pictured intently fastening the golden strap of her gorgeous but slightly debauched mistress' stiletto, her bare knees handsomely decorated with bruises or carpet burns - her badges of office. The picture is an elegant form of titillation, fantasy smut for the bored ladies of the Faubourg.
Feet, legs, genitalia, buttocks and breasts all seem to appear more often than faces in these fevered photo shoots. The models pull dresses over their heads to show their underwear; they spread their legs beneath lewd Louis XV writing tables; they expire, heels in the air, in the back of a limousine; they are anonymous and available but somehow never desirable. Bourdin's photographs are frigidly Baroque - every detail is controlled. Each staccato pose and each orgasmic grimace is played for the camera without emotion to create an ornamental form of sex and violence. This strange formality pervades the photographs with a kind of sordid gloom; they are as intense and claustrophobic as fashion photography gets. Using the somewhat banal clichés of Surrealism, Bourdin managed to create a world of mystery and nerve-jangling suspense, a place of elongated shadows and menacing sunlight whose inhabitants are dressed by Dior and Callaghan, Paco Rabanne and Chanel.
Bourdin's photographs truly exist between the covers of fashion magazines, principally French Vogue of the 1970s. His life's work could be seen as a grandly ephemeral site-specific public project, almost ungraspable in its entirety and bearing an inextricable but somehow incidental relationship to the commercial worlds of fashion and advertising. He cared little for posterity and was reluctant to talk about his photographs or exhibit them anywhere beyond the printed page. He seized upon the fantasies generated by the culture of consumption, and combined them with his own intimate obsessions. For Bourdin the sanctified pages of Vogue acted as a kind of confessional, a place to exorcize the ghosts of his past: a beloved mother estranged from the family, a father he hated, his phobia for the colour green, the suicide of his reclusive wife - all these became motifs in extended fashion stories that were regularly over 20 pages in length.
He was notorious for his demanding treatment of the models he chose to work with. Bourdin liked innocents, or at least nobody too professional. He demanded total commitment, and the photography sessions were a ritual test of endurance as he constantly struggled to create more and more bizarre and impossible scenarios that would, for a moment, make the fantastic real.
His photographs still manage to describe the qualifications of fashion in deathly detail. They itemize the specifics of clothing, emphasizing the hallucinatory nature of the work. The nightmare is frighteningly distinct, the delirium pulls everything into a sickeningly sharp focus and creates another kind of intrigue; the drama of a hemline, a high heel, a stocking top or a diamond necklace is just as compelling as the mise en scène of the image.
Along with Helmut Newton, Bourdin expanded fashion photography's horizons. Independent and innovative, often scandalous and certainly misogynistic, his images crystallize the atmosphere of fashion at a certain moment and established him as perhaps the most influential photographer of his time. These artificial and far-fetched perversions served their purpose perfectly: they shocked, inspired, were proclaimed as the work of a genius and, in a matter of years, forgotten. By the end of the 1970s fashion had become less hard-edged, its imagery a lot less worrying. Glamour came to mean something different from Bourdin's specialist version. Health and vitality were in, asphyxiation by telephone cord was definitely out. His vision quickly became out of step and he was unwilling or unable to move on. Bourdin left Vogue in 1988 and gradually withdrew from the world. He died in 1991.
Until the publication of Exhibit A one rarely saw Bourdin's photographs, and that's perhaps just how he would have wanted it. Yet contemporary fashion photographers endlessly reconstruct, unwittingly or not, his brand of surreal hi-gloss chic, his airless melodramas and his cadaverous version of beauty. The contemporary version is balanced by a sense of nostalgia and ironic reference to the sinister delights of improper forms of representation. However, Bourdin's work provides no such reassurance - his images are too uncompromising, their spirit truly uninheritable. They show us a macabre corner of nowhere at the end of a one-way street.
First published in Issue 64