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Severed Mannequin Legs In Stilettos: The Surreal Fashion Photography Of Guy Bourdin

London’s Somerset House presents the biggest ever exhibition of Guy Bourdin’s provocative, game-changing fashion photography.

Severed mannequin legs in stilettos strut down boardwalks and past bus stops. Another disembodied pair tiptoes through a peaceful green pasture. Three more legs, in neon stockings, lie tied to a train track.

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These are some of the surreal, cinematic images from “Walking Legs,” a 1979 ad campaign for Charles Jourdan shoes by the late, great French fashion photographer Guy Bourdin. The 22-image series is now on view in its entirety for the first time at at London’s Somerset House as part of Guy Bourdin: Image Maker. It’s the biggest ever exhibition of the photographer’s work, featuring more than 200 pieces from Bourdin’s estate, dating from 1955 to 1987.

Charles Jourdan, Autumn 1979© The Guy Bourdin Estate, 2014/Courtesy A+C

At a basic level, the purpose of the fashion photograph is to sell clothes and accessories. Less imaginative fashion photographers tend to put products front and center in an image, with the background or context as an afterthought. But Bourdin’s images, beginning with his debut for Vogue Paris in the 1950s, always told a visual story first and showcased a product second. Your first question when looking at “Walking Legs” probably isn’t about where you can buy those stilettos, but rather about the rules of this fantastical, strange universe in which torso-less mannequin legs take leisurely strolls through a technicolor British countryside.

Bourdin, who demanded complete artistic control over his commissioned magazine spreads (including the hair and makeup of models), blurred the line between art and advertising. His images don’t lose their power or relevance when the product they were originally selling is no longer for sale. His avant-garde approach to the medium, influenced by his idol, Man Ray, inspired generations of fashion photographers to come, from Tim Walker to Nick Knight. Filmmakers like David Lynch share Bourdin’s erotic, morbid fever-dream sensibilities. And they influenced fashion designers as well, like Mary Katrantzou, whose 2011 collection was based on the photographer’s oeuvre.

Vogue Paris, May 1970© The Guy Bourdin Estate, 2014/Courtesy A+C

Unlike his contemporaries Richard Avedon and Helmut Newton, Bourdin wasn’t too concerned with his legacy, and never tried too hard to immortalize his work–he never published a book, never hosted an exhibit, and rejected the Grand Prix National de la Photographie from the French government. It’s only now, more than two decades after his death at age 62, that the full power of Bourdin’s legacy–which continues despite his refreshing reluctance to turn himself into a brand–is being celebrated with his entire surviving archives on view.

Guy Bourdin: Image-Maker is on view at London’s Somerset House until March 15, 2015.

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About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.

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