Death and desire dominate the work of the celebrated Vogue photographer Guy Bourdin. A reflection of his own life? Abandoned by his mother as a child, Bourdin was a very disturbed man who drove many of his models mad, while several of his lovers committed suicide.

STEUN RO

The London Sommerset House currently displays over 100 images of Guy Bourdin, one of the 20th century's most influential fashion photographers. Bourdin was a student of Man Ray and his work clearly shows a surrealist streak: hands upon hands upon hands with red polished nails covering a woman’s face; a naked girl lying face down in a pool of blood; a girl standing in a phone booth with two seemingly lifeless bodies lying in the foreground.

One could say that, following the "era of elegance" dominated by such classic photographers as Richard Avedon and Irvin Penn, fashion photography lost its innocence with the arrival of Helmut Newton and, even more so, Guy Bourdin. Newton liked to play with the notions of SM and strong, overpowering women, yet his work is child’s play compared to the dark fantasies of his French contemporary.

Foto: EPA/Maja Hitij

Born in Paris in 1928, Bourdin was obsessed with death and desire. Some of his erotic images are on the edge of pornography, while darkness always lurks around the corner. Take his image of a pair of red shoes set against a blue background with a pair of legs hanging from the top corner. It is hardly his only image hinting at violence and suicide.

Cow Heads

Perhaps Bourdin’s first ever photo for French Vogue was a sign of things to come. Asked in 1954 to shoot a hat special, he portrayed a model with hat against the backdrop of three cow heads hanging in a butcher shop. It was the start of a glorious career. Bourdin would work for Vogue his entire life.

He was a short and not particularly handsome man with a high-pitched voice and a reputation for being extremely demanding. At times, he was just plain cruel. One editor once described him as a peasant in a Breughel painting.

In the BBC documentary Dreamgirls, the stylist Serge Lutens explained how Bourdin would make models hold extremely uncomfortable positions for extended periods, regularly making the girls cry. According to Lutens, Bourdin clearly enjoyed his position of power.

Pearls

The most notorious Bourdin incident occurred during a 1970 photo shoot for the Vogue Christmas issue. Two models had been booked. Bourdin first came up with the idea to smear the girls’ faces with glue and cover them with pearls. He then thought it an even better idea to cover their whole bodies with pearls.

'But he did not know that if the whole body is glued it can't breathe,' former model Louise Despointes told The New Yorker in 1994. 'And we blacked out. The editor said "We can't go any further. These girls will die." And Guy was saying, "Oh it would be beautiful – to have them dead in bed!"'

The girls did not die and Despointes’ face made it onto the Vogue Christmas cover. See here the reason why, despite his reputation, any self-respecting model in the 1970s wanted to work with Guy Bourdin. His half-brother Michel on several occasions confirmed that Bourdin was very tough with women, which according to him was ultimately linked to his mother: 'Guy never forgave his mother for letting him down.'

Loveless Child

Bourdin was abandoned by his mother only a year after he was born. His father remarried and sent young Guy to a boarding school. From the age of five, he was mainly raised by his grandparents. It seems Guy’s father did not care much. When Guy had discovered his love for photography during a stint in the French army in Senegal in the 1940s, he wished to open a studio, yet his father refused to lend him a dime.

Bourdin’s love life was by all means colorful, yet hardly happy. In 1961, he fell in love with Solange Gèze, a secretary from the Dordogne, far removed from the glitzy glamour of the fashion world. They got married and had a son, Samuel, who would never enjoy a very warm relationship with his father.

Trouble truly started in 1966 when, while on a shoot in New York, he fell in love with 20-year-old model Holly Warner. Bourdin promptly left his wife and Warner moved to Paris. They lived at the Rue de Pelican, near The Louvre. Yet their happiness would not last long.

Suicidal Tendencies

During a shoot in 1968, Bourdin got infatuated with upcoming Austrian model Eva Gschopf. Warner saw the unfolding scenario and the situation at home gradually became unbearable. In a desperate moment in 1969 she slashed her wrists, yet survived.

Things were not much better for Gschopf. While in the US, she fell from a tree and died. 'She jumped out of the tree because she thought she was a bird,' Bourdin reportedly said when he was first told about her death. This sounds rather cold, though is not quite incorrect, as local newspapers reported that the 22-year-old was high on LSD.

Gschopf’s death did not bother Bourdin long. Within weeks he hit it off with her best friend, Sybille Dallmer. Interestingly, both Gschopf and Dallmer were redheads, just like Bourdin’s mother had been. Soon after, Dallmer moved in at the Rue de Pelican.

However, the 1969 disaster year was not over just yet, for a few weeks later Bourdin’s estranged wife Solange died. The official cause of death stated she had a heart attack, yet rumor has it that she actually died from an overdose of sleeping pills.

Sybille's Death

The early 1970s were arguably Bourdin’s best years. He was at the peak of his powers, while Sybille played the role of caring housewife. On her initiative Bourdin’s son Samuel moved in. Meanwhile, Bourdin’s photos became ever more cinematic and suggestive. Many fashion photographers stand accused of objectifying women, yet Bourdin went one step further. In his images, the model would often disappear altogether, as he would only show her legs or backside.

By the late 70s, however, problems returned. Bourdin had never been as a good a bookkeeper as he was a photographer. One day the tax man came knocking on his door and from then onward Bourdin would find himself in severe financial stress.

What’s more, Bourdin is said to have been as demanding at home as he was on the set and his relationship with Sybille rapidly deteriorated. Becoming more and more secluded, she hung herself in 1981. She was found by 13-year-old Samuel.

During the 80s, Bourdin’s financial troubles intensified, while his work gradually fell out of fashion. In 1989 he was diagnosed with cancer and two years later he died. What remains is his oeuvre, which Lutens summarized as: 'What Guy did, was conduct his own psychoanalysis in Vogue.'

The Guy Bourdin retrospective at the London Sommerset House lasts till March 15, 2015 

    Peter Speetjens (1967) woont sinds 1996 in Beiroet. Hij was correspondent voor Trouw en De Standaard, en publiceerde verhalen in onder andere De Groene Amsterdammer, NRC en Vrij Nederland. In 2004Πco-regiseerde hij de film 2000 Terrorists. Peter schrijft vooral over Libanon, de regio en de manier waarop zij gestalte krijgt in de media.