Somerset House hosts the late photographer's largest retrospective yet.

Ever since ‘The One Where Ross and Rachel… You Know’ aired in February 1996, properly impressionable dates, the type in which girls and guys hope to win over potential partners via similarly immersive experiences, have meant a trip to the Imax.

Not at Somerset House’s new exhibition.

Away from the ice rink and Chris Stein’s snapshots of Debbie Harry and co (the courtyard and the East Wing, respectively), a retrospective of the late French photographer Guy Bourdin makes its play for the date friendly title, courtesy of a single space.

Somewhere beside the impressive Mezzanine gallery of the Embankment Galleries, a room boasts four large screens, leaving no wall space spare. Upon said screens are projected a series of Super-8 films, shot by Bourdin over thirty years ago.

Shaky and grainy, they glitter and intrigue, depicting the same rich scenes elsewhere translated through his sharp photography. It’s the most enveloping scenario within the whole exhibit, and gorgeously so.

As a predecessor to today’s fashion film game, the clips – of which there are several throughout ‘Guy Bourdin: Image-Maker’ – shine a spotlight on an otherwise overlooked area of the photography giant’s 40 year career. Likewise the rooms of paintings (never finished, left unsigned), sketches, notebooks and polaroids; each which build a picture of Bourdin as more than an image maker but as a creator.

Born in Paris in 1928, the 1950’s labeled him Man Ray’s protégé; by ’53 he was exhibiting his work and in 1955 he began a relationship with Vogue Paris that would last until 1987; many of his photos from its pages line the walls at Somerset House today.

On the surface alone, Alistair O’Neill and Shelly Verthime’s exhibition – a much larger affair than the first Bourdin retrospective, displayed 11 years ago at the V and A – is a playground of fantastic imagery, showcasing the fashion photographer’s very famous work alongside images less easily distinguished.

Opening with a previously unseen film, shot on location as Bourdin, his partner Sybille, son Samuel, assistant and cameras travelled across Britain in a Cadillac, the piece showcases the behind the scenes ‘holiday’ that formed his infamous campaign for Charles Jourdan; images from which cling to nearby walls.

Bourdin’s greatest coup, many would argue, was turning product shots into things of genuine interest, and here this is specifically noted in a room titled ‘Shoes, Legs, Shoes’. Other sections are given over to his muse, Nicolle Meyer – present when Clash walks the floor – and his role as an art director.

“You couldn’t be resistant to his ideas if you worked with Guy,” Meyer notes, “you needed to be open to every suggestion.” It’s a theory demonstrated across 'Guy Bourdin: Image-Maker', marked out almost by default of the (sometimes fetishizing, often surreal, all pre-digital) results, defining him as one of last century’s visual standouts.

Words: Zoe Whitfield

Until 15th March 2015.


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