Background of Bourdins Style

Bourdin clearly transformed his personal obsessions into a body of work that was stunningly daring and visually unforgettable. "What Guy did," his stylist Serge Lutens has said, "was conduct his own psychoanalysis in Vogue " (Hayden-Guest, p. 143). Abandoned as an infant by an unloving woman, he obsessively depicted women tied up, in compromising situations, or dead. He was said to favor models with pale red hair, because they reminded him of his mother, and he was renowned for making bizarre, macabre, and sometimes cruel demands on them. Stories abound about models being made to balance on a rock during an electrical storm, being subjected to props that cut into their flesh, and passing out after being suspended to appear as if they were flying.

One model, Louise Despointes, was said to have been kept waiting in a freezing studio, then wrapped in plastic and lowered into a bathtub of extremely cold water on which black enamel paint had been floated. She emerged from the tub "enameled" in black paint, uncomfortable and unable to work for days. Bourdin even reputedly placed models in life-threatening positions and delighted in the idea of their deaths. In another famous story, Bourdin initially smeared the faces of Despointes and another model with a thin layer of glue as a way to stick dozens of pearls to their faces. When he decided to cover their entire bodies with pearls, they passed out because they were not getting enough oxygen to their skin and could not breathe, and the editor stopped the shoot, thinking the models would die. Bourdin was reputed to have said, "Oh, it would be beautiful—to have them dead in bed!" (Hayden-Guest, p. 136).

Eroticism and Violence in Bourdin's Photography Eroticism—and the link between sex and violence—is a major component of Bourdin's photography. The foundation had been laid by the imagery of the preceding decade, particularly the sexual emancipation of Richard Avedon's work of the 1960s. Yet the brilliant and sensitive use of nudity and sexual innuendo that Avedon and Bob Richardson had introduced into fashion depiction in those years—confronting lesbianism and the ménage à trois, for instance—was tame by 1970s' standards. The time was ripe for Bourdin's stylized violence and the darker realities of voyeurism, death, and rape.

Bourdin's photographic violence is thematically akin to the bloody climax of the film Bonnie and Clyde, the dental torture in Marathon Man, or the orgiastic violence of The Wild Bunch. This brand of violent depiction plays with the audience's attraction to the escalating brutality and demands that the viewer consider violence glamorous. The new brand of violent fashion photography and film supplies the viewer with a fantasy fulfillment unavailable in everyday life. As Stephen Farber explains in his New Yorker article "The Bloody Movies: Why Film Violence Sells":

One of the functions of popular art has always been to give people some notion of experiences denied them in reality—a taste of romance, glamour, adventure, danger. But perhaps as everyday life becomes more smoothly homogenized, people need splashier, more grotesque vicarious thrills. Today, . . . [we only experience violence] at professional hockey and football games, at high-powered rock concerts, or at the movies. (p. 44)

Or, one might add, in fashion photography.

Guy Bourdin's violence against women—both actual and photographic—played on their vulnerability, which is a leitmotif in his work. Shadows are an effective device often used for creating an air of mystery, implied physical threat, and even frenzy. Bourdin used such shadows as early as 1966 to suggest the presence of Batman—normally a hero figure and protector—chasing a confused, worried woman through the streets. The thrown shadows, used repeatedly in Bourdin's oeuvre, represent the woman's living nightmare of vulnerability, of being threatened by indistinguishable forms and unseen presences.

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