Guy Bourdin



In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Guy Bourdin 1928–1991
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Image: 165 × 228 mm
Purchased with funds provided by the Photography Acquisitions Committee 2015


Solange 1957 is a black and white photograph by the French photographer Guy Bourdin. The image depicts the photographer’s wife Solange Gèze – to whom the artist was married from 1961 until her death in 1971 – although she appears less the subject of the photograph than a part of the composition. Solange stands at a distance from the camera, her back against the wall of a room, into which the camera looks from outside, through a window. The window frame, exterior wall and door – all of which are scratched and in a state of disrepair – occupy the foreground, although the sense of spatial depth is complicated by the head-on shot and the equally messy interior walls, which appear to merge with the window frame. It is only the tiny figure of Solange that disrupts the continuity, resulting in an uncanny effect.

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 At the Sculptor Adam’s Studio 1953, Tate P81219) 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 subjects of his portraits are often 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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