Guy Bourdin – Modern Color

Guy Bourdin – Source of Modern Photography?

Guy Bourdin was a French artist and fashion photographer known for his provocative images. From 1955, Bourdin worked mostly with Vogue as well as other publications including Harper’s Bazaar. But, while those facts may be interesting, the most curious thing about his work is how many photographers not familiar with his images insist that it must be digital.

He shot ad campaigns for Chanel, Charles Jourdan, Pentax and Bloomingdale’s. His work is collected by important institutions including Tate in London, MoMA, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Getty Museum. The first retrospective exhibition of his work was held at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London in 2003, and then toured the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, and the Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris. The Tate is permanently exhibiting a part of its collection (one of the largest) with works made between 1950 and 1955.


© Guy Bourdin Polaroid


He is considered as one of the best known photographers of fashion and advertising of the second half of the 20th century. He set the stage for a new kind of fashion photography. In fact, many consider him the original source of the modern fashion photography of pretty much everyone. His images made only more amazing when you consider the time period they were produced,….way before digital or Photoshop.
While conventional fashion images make beauty and clothing their central elements, Bourdin’s photographs offer a radical alternative,…a first.


Guy Bourdin
© Guy Bourdin


Developing in a Surreal World

Guy Bourdin was born 2 December 1928 in Paris, France. His parents separated when he was an infant and he was sent to live with his paternal grandparents who owned a house in Normandy. His grandparents were also owners of a restaurant in Paris called Brasserie Bourdin. When his father, who was only 18 at the time of his birth, remarried, Bourdin was again under his care. Apparently Bourdin only saw his mother once when she arrived at the Brasserie to present him with a gift.


© Guy Bourdin Model with 4×5 Polaroid


Thereafter, his only communication with his mother took place in the side-by-side phone booths of the Brasserie where his participation would be ensured by a locked door. At the age of eighteen Bourdin embarked on a cycling tour in Provence during which he met art-dealer Lucien Henry. Bourdin passed six months living at Henrys house where he concentrated on painting and drawing until it was time for his mandatory military service.

Air Force Camera

Bourdin was first introduced to photography during his service in the Air Force. Stationed in Dakar (1948–49), Bourdin received his initial photographic training, working as an aerial photographer. When he returned to Paris after his service, he supported himself with a number of menial jobs, including as a salesman of camera lenses and he also continued to paint, draw and take pictures.


© Guy Bourdin


During this time he exhibited some of his drawings and also sought out the mentorship of the American ex-patriot and prodigious surrealist, Man Ray. According to the story Bourdin was turned away from Man Ray’s door six times by his wife and on the seventh finally succeeded in gaining the artist’s company when Man Ray himself answered the door and invited Bourdin in. Bourdin had indeed succeeded in gaining the confidence of Man Ray, who later wrote the catalogue for Bourdins first exhibition in 1952.


Guy Bourdin
© Guy Bourdin


Bourdin made his first exhibition of drawings and paintings at Galerie, Rue de la Bourgogne, Paris. His first photographic exhibition was in 1953. He exhibited under the pseudonym Edwin Hallan in his early career. His first fashion shots were published in the February 1955 issue of Vogue Paris. As a contemporary of Helmut Newton, who also worked extensively for Vogue, Bourdin helped establish what would come to be known as contemporary photography. Helmut Newton said,…”Between him and me the magazine became pretty irresistible in many ways and we complemented each other. If he had been alone or I had been alone it wouldn’t have worked.” He continued to work for the magazine until 1987.

Vogue and Jourdan

An editor of Vogue magazine introduced Guy Bourdin to shoe designer Charles Jourdan, who became his patron.  Bourdin shot Jourdan’s ad campaigns between 1967 and 1981. His quirky anthropomorphic compositions were recognized as distinctly Bourdin.


© Guy Bourdin


In 1985, Guy Bourdin turned down the Grand Prix National de la Photographie, awarded by the French Ministry of Culture, but his name is retained on the list of award winners. What has always amazed me is how sexual, (sensual), his images are with very little nudity. Although it’s been said how hard he was on models, you certainly can’t tell by the images he produced.

Guy Bourdin – The Master Surrealist

Guy Bourdin’s photographs are often richly sensual but also rely heavily on provocation and ability to shock. Additionally integrating erotic, surreal and sinister components. Guy Bourdin configured a whole new visual vocabulary with which to associate the goods of haute-couture. The narratives were strange and mysterious, often plainly exhibiting violence and graphic sexuality. (keep in mind, this was 50 years ago) Evident through astute reading of his compositional and thematic presentation, Guy Bourdin profited from the influence of a diverse collection of contemporaries. First and foremost was his mentor Man Ray. But he has said his influences included the photographer Edward Weston and surrealist painters Magritte and Balthus. He usually shot in 4×5 and composed in camera.   Sinar 4×5


GB Books



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