The Sinister Sexuality of Guy Bourdin, a Deeply Troubled Genius

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©Sofia Sanchez & Mauro Mongiello in a style reminiscent of Guy Bourdin

If greatness is defined by the mark you leave on the world, Guy Bourdin was the greatest fashion photographer to ever live. Period. Irving Penn was great, Helmut Newton was pretty solid too, and Richard Avedon took photographs that were as timeless as they were beautiful. But Bourdin? He did something else. He made you see the female body and fashion photography like you never had before. Though undoubtedly many of these other heavy-weight photographers had a big hand to play in shaping the look of fashion photography as a genre today, none shaped it as much as Mr. Guy Bourdin. Even if you’ve never seen his images before, they all look oddly familiar. A close look at his work, and side by side comparison to contemporary photographers like Mert and Marcus, Inez and Vinoodh, Terry Richardson, even Tim Walker, will reveal that they’ve all been copying Bourdin all along. In the words of Manolo Blahnik, Bourdin’s creative legacy is so immense, his shoes will never be filled by another. So far, Blahnik’s prophecy has proven to be true. No other photographer could shock and scandalize the viewer while keeping them totally enthralled, and no other photographer has succeeded in redefining the appearance of an entire industry as much as Guy. The question is whether we can honestly consider this fact of history a good thing. After all, Bourdin’s photographs romanticized violence against women, reduced the female body to it’s basic erotic parts, and were generally pretty misogynystic, and yet you couldn’t find it in you to look away.

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©Guy Bourdin, Roland Pierre, 1983

In one image a woman lies naked on the floor with a crimson red stream of blood flowing from her lips, in another two women lie limply on a pile of dirt, presumably dead, while a third woman (another victim? the perpetrator? a witness? we can’t be sure) is seen in a distant phone booth visibly panicked. Bourdin even made a short film featuring a seemingly dead naked girl face down on some astroturf. These are Guy Bourdin’s darkest themes, not just subtly hinting at murder and violence, but boldly announcing it – some would say even glamorizing it. On a strictly visual level, the images are powerfully compelling, beautifully composed, impeccably styled and bursting with color. But can you ever completely remove yourself emotionally from art? Bourdin’s images will always leave you feeling unsettled at the very least. He was the first fashion photographer to fetishize the human body, specifically women’s legs, going so far as to remove the rest of the woman entirely. A pair of perfect disembodied legs are seen walking by the sea, spread open on the sidewalk, or as stand-ins for table legs. Like never before in fashion photography, women’s body parts became things, to be enjoyed separately from the real person that they were attached to. Of course, it is art’s job to make you uncomfortable, and force you to analyze what you see. The problem is that in fashion, analysis often only goes as far as the clothes a model is wearing. The rest is accepted under the umbrella of general fabulousness.

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Guy Bourdin on the left and Terry Richardson for Aldo on the right. An excellent example of the scope of Guy’s influence.

We’re sure it wouldn’t shock you to hear that Guy Bourdin had a difficult relationship with women. According to several accounts made by those closest to him, it was a consequence of being abandoned by his mother as a young boy. Guy himself openly admitted that he had never been able to forgive her. As a result he grew into a needy, possessive and controlling man with a disturbing tendency of keeping his girlfriends locked away his apartment, and insist that they cut contact with the outside world. Perhaps he was afraid that they would abandon him as his mother had. We will never know the driving forces behind his behavior, the degree of influence it had on his art, or the true impact that it would have on his romantic relationships. What we do know is that two of Guy’s girlfriends committed suicide, one from what was believed to be an overdose, and another was found hanging from the ceiling of Guy’s apartment by his young son. Perhaps it was these tragic events that provoked Bourdin’s fascination with death in his images.

©Guy Bourdin – Pentax Calendar, 1980

In 1994, not long after Guy’s death, journalist Anthony Haden-Guest of The New Yorker reported that, “In Bourdin’s last years, there was a feeling that he had outlived his time; under such disparate influences as the women’s movement and AIDS, the fashion world had fallen out of love with photographs that hinted at decadence, ambiguous sex, and female frailty. A decade later…the seventies are being rifled, and references to Bourdin are appearing everywhere.” This was the early 90s, and decadence, sexuality and the use of the naked female body to sell products was at it’s peak. Bourdin set the tone and aesthetic philosophy of ads like this Tom Ford Campaign and this one, also Dolce and Gabbana, Jimmy Choo, and anything by Gucci. Up until very recently, when minimalism, simplicity and man repeller chic took hold of our collective imaginations, did Bourdin’s sexually charged aesthetic start to loose hold over the fashion industry.

©Guy Bourdin for Charles Jourdan Shoes, 1977

Beyond his penchant for bizarre narrative photography, Guy Bourdin was eccentric in every sense of the word. He would supposedly only work with people born under certain star signs, he took sleeping pills in order to make his dreams last longer, and he famously arrived at the French Vogue offices on a camel. He didnt have an accountant, he didn’t accept awards, frequently turned down lucrative job offers and didn’t like to share his models with other photographers. He was rarely an easy man to work with, and today might have been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. During one infamous Vogue photoshoot, Guy dipped his model in a pool of cold water filled with black enamel. She was wrapped in plastic but not well, and the black enamel remained on her body for days after the shoot, much to Guy Bourdin’s delight. “It was probably not so much her discomfort that occasioned Bourdin’s glee as the possibility she would be prevented from working with any other photographer for sometime,” reported Haden-Guest, “even in his notorious controlling profession, Bourdin was a very controlling man.” During another photoshoot Guy had his makeup artist paint the models with glue and completely cover them with tiny light-reflecting beads. When the team realized that the girls were blacking out because their skin couldn’t breathe, the Editors decided to pull the plug on the look stating, “We can’t go any further. These girls will die.” To which Bourin gleefully responded, ‘Oh it would be beautiful – to have them dead in bed!” It was truly a bizarre way of interpreting beauty, but strangest of all is that this kind of sadomasochistic inclination often resulted in images that resonated with a wider audience. Bourdin was one of the most in-demand, and highest paid fashion photographers of his day.

©Guy Bourdin

We try to be as neutral as possible with things like these, and would rather that you make up your own minds about what kind of art this is and whether it has any greater societal significance. It is however difficult to remain completely unbiased when, at the end of the day, our goal is to encourage strength and confidence in women. The women featured in Bourdin’s work are rarely presented as strong. Instead, they are broken sex dolls, dead princesses and dominated femme fatales. It is often clear that the observer of Guy’s images is a man. The prevalence of images like Bourdin’s in our culture, images filled with messages of female frailty, of beauty gone awry, and the prevalent theme of dominated female sexuality, are all there for the male gaze, urging the female viewer to ask, “Is that how he sees me? Is that how I should act? Is that what he finds attractive?” It is a visual culture that encourages men to objectify, and women to self-objectify, or as John Berger famously stated, it perpetuates the tendency for men to look at women, and women to watch themselves being looked at. What do you think?

Natalia Borecka

Natalia is the editor in chief and publisher of Lone Wolf Magazine. She founded the publication in 2012.

  1. You could turn this article into a thesis and I’d read the whole thing – seeing how his work (with all of it’s problematic underpinnings) has informed the current body of fashion photography is really important. Thank you for the article. A great read. 🙂

  2. I was Guy’s photography assistant from the summer of ’85 to late ’87, his final years at French Vogue when the collective movement away from his aesthetic began. Francine Crescent, Vogue’s editor-in-chief and longtime ally was leaving Vogue and it seemed venues for his work were in decline. He told me a memo was making the rounds, too that, photographers like Horst, Newton and himself among others, the old guard and Vogue’s greatest contributors, were to be avoided under the new directorship. That was a sad time. Also in decline was Guy’s health. Sometime in 1989, I think, he called to tell me he had colon cancer. He probably knew of its presence those years before but, kept it secret, from me, anyway. No doubt, it had a very detrimental impact on his work.

    Talking to the photographer, Horst P. Horst, one day in front of Vogue studios at the Place du Palais-Bourbon, I told him I was Guy Bourdin’s assistant. Horst leaned over to me and said in a hushed tone, “He really is the best, isn’t he?”

    I certainly think so.

    1. Natalia Borecka says:

      Incredible to have that first hand experience. Thank you warmly for sharing it!

  3. Would be happy to read your take on Deborah Turbeville. As a woman who was also introducing darkness in fashion photography, did she produce an image of women that was less degrading than Bourdin’s?

    1. Natalia Borecka says:

      Love this suggestion! Though you’re absolutely right, Turbeville’s work can be dark, the overall effect is not sexual or sinister, it’s moody and nostalgic. And though she uses nude models in her photos, the nudes are not placed in a sexual context. They’re kind of floating around like figures in a dream.

  4. I think the important thing to consider is why the fashion world responded to his images the way they did? That saddens me – that sadomasochistic images from a man who clearly enjoyed abusing women (whether personally or professionally) were glorified and aspired to and help in such high esteem? I think that is the important issue – why were they so well received? Societ condones, celebrates or criticises work in the public eye and it is to society that we should look. Had Bourdin’s work been rejected as degrading women by those who chose to publish and praise his work, this article would cease to exist.

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