Guy Bourdin

Untitled

c.1950s

In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Artist
Guy Bourdin 1928–1991
Medium
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Dimensions
Image: 204 x 255 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased with funds provided by the Photography Acquisitions Committee 2015
Reference
P81218

Summary

Untitled c.1950s is a black and white photograph by the French photographer Guy Bourdin. The image shows what appear to be a pair of sliding doors in an industrial setting. The doors have been pulled slightly open to reveal the figure of a male worker, wearing a leather apron and raised face shield and holding a hammer. Behind him, in the gap created by the doors, an area of dark horizontal and vertical bands suggests a staircase or warehouse interior. Although the figure is central in the image, the focus of the work seems to be more on the abstract pattern created by the grid-like panelling of the doors and the graffiti scrawled lightly across their surface.

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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