Guy Bourdin

Nina and Babett


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Guy Bourdin 1928–1991
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Image: 169 × 222 mm
Purchased with funds provided by the Photography Acquisitions Committee 2015


Nina and Babett c.1950s is a black and white photograph by the French photographer Guy Bourdin. The image depicts two women: one leans against the wall toward the left of the frame and the other lies on the floor, with only her head and shoulders visible in the bottom right-hand corner. The standing figure is casually dressed, with no shoes. She looks away from the photographer and the other woman, out of the left side of the frame. The second woman faces upwards but appears to have her eyes closed. The wall that takes up most of the rest of the image is uneven in texture, with puckered, flaking plaster.

Bourdin is best known for his experimental colour fashion photography produced while working for French Vogue between 1955 and 1977. This photograph belongs to an earlier period of experimentation, before he began to use colour and work in fashion. Taken outside the studio, it shows Bourdin’s sensitivity to the natural world and his attempt to transform the everyday into abstract compositions, bridging the gap between surrealism and subjective photography. Bourdin’s early work was heavily influenced by surrealism, as well as by pioneers of photography as a fine art such as Edward Weston, Paul Strand and Bill Brandt. His surrealist aesthetic can be attributed to his close relationship with Man Ray, who wrote the foreword to the catalogue for Bourdin’s first solo exhibition of black and white photographs at Galerie 29, Paris, in 1952.

This and other early works in Tate’s collection (such as Untitled (Sotteville, Normandy) c.1950s, Tate P81205, and Solange 1957, Tate P81216) are typical of Subjektive Fotografie (‘subjective photography’), a tendency in the medium in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Led by the German photographer and teacher Otto Steinert, who organised three exhibitions under the title Subjektive Fotografie in 1951, 1954 and 1958, the movement advocated artistic self-expression – in the form of the artist’s creative approach to composition, processing and developing – above factual representation. Subjektive Fotografie’s emphasis on, and encouragement of, individual perspectives invited both the photographer and the viewer to interpret and reflect on the world through images. Bourdin’s interest in this can be seen in his early use of texture and abstraction, evident in close-up studies of cracked paint peeling off an external wall or a piece of torn fabric. These still lives were often dark in subject matter and tone, highlighting Bourdin’s interest in surrealist compositions and the intersection between death and sexuality. The works made use of the photographer’s urban environment, with deep black and high contrast printing techniques employed to create a sombre mood.

This approach was also important for Bourdin’s early portraiture, which anticipated his subsequent work in fashion. The subject of his portraits – often Solange Gèze, to whom the artist was married from 1961 until her death in 1971 – is usually framed subtly, rarely appearing in the centre or as the main focus of the image. In these works the figure is secondary, showing how Bourdin let the natural or urban environment frame the subject and integrate the body into its immediate surroundings. Bourdin was meticulous about the creative process from start to finish, sketching out images on paper and then recreating them in the landscape, using the natural environment as a stage set for his work.

Further reading
Alison Gingeras, Guy Bourdin, London 2006.
Shelly Verthime (ed.), Guy Bourdin: A Message for You, Gottingen 2006.

Shoair Mavlian
August 2014

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Display caption

Best known for his colour fashion photography for French Vogue, these earlier works reveal Bourdin’s fascination with texture and abstraction. His close-up studies take objects and surfaces out of their everyday environment in order to render them afresh. His approach was informed by the subjective photography movement, which advocated artistic self-expression as the guiding principle, above factual representation. Bourdin’s process was meticulous, sketching out images on paper before recreating them in the landscape.

Gallery label, January 2016

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