Guy Bourdin



In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Guy Bourdin 1928–1991
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Image: 217 × 166 mm
Purchased with funds provided by the Photography Acquisitions Committee 2015


Untitled 1955 is a black and white photograph by the French photographer Guy Bourdin. The image shows a wall which appears to be painted in two different tones, with a moulding running horizontally across it. A pipe of some sort runs vertically down the wall, bisecting the composition in half to create an empty rectangle towards the bottom of the image. The pipe appears to be attached to the wall at the level of the moulding, but then to project outwards; yet the space is ambiguous and any sense of depth is flattened out by the strong lines of the image which create a near-abstract composition. In the bottom right corner, the head of a person is just visible, presented as an incidental detail, dwarfed by the height and mass of the wall.

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 (1890–1976), 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 photographs by Bourdin in Tate’s collection (see Tate P81203P81229) 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 (1915–1978), 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, updated August 2018

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