I’d never seen fashion photographs displayed in any context other than the glossy pages of ridiculously expensive magazines; so naturally, when I saw an advertisement for the retrospective of Guy Bourdin’s work now exhibiting at London’s Somerset House, I thought I’d go.
Known for his provocative fashion images, Bourdin was a French fashion photographer who rose to fame in the 70s. He was surrealist Man Ray’s protégé in the early 50s, an influence that clearly resonates throughout the striking photographs of disembodied women exposed on the walls of the gallery. His campaigns for shoe designer Charles Jourdan monopolise the onset of the exhibition, and these quirky anthropomorphic compositions command most of my attention as I wander through the gallery.
Bourdin’s works, both haunting and glamorous, lack any human presence. Consisting only of the lower legs of a plastic mannequin, these images offer a radical alternative to the conventional fashion images, which highlight beautiful faces and clothing in the foreground. The photographs provoke loaded questions concerning the necessity of the fashion model, whose presence within the fashion world has been forever ubiquitous yet totally impersonal.
For example, why must we constantly strive to find ideal beauty in real women when the focus should be on the product? In the fashion industry, models merely act as a medium for the self-expression of others. Whereas the presence of iconic models such as Kate Moss, Cara Delevigne and Jourdan Dunn are now key to the promotion and selling of the brands they represent, Bourdin’s shots refocus our attention on the fashion itself.
In art as in designer clothing, it is the name of the maker that sells. This is an unfortunate reality that has led to the inevitable demise of authentic artistic appreciation, in fashion and in art. An obsession with labels and names has enveloped both realms, rendering true creative talent irrelevant.
In his time, many critiqued Bourdin for his explicit objectification of women. I disagree. For me, his works emphasise the aesthetic allure of the intended object – Charles Jourdan’s high-heels – and point to the reduction of society’s respect for fashion as artistic creation. By blurring the line between advertising and art and making the models inhabit ambiguous spaces in his campaigns, he questions the role of models in fashion photography and in the industry in general.
I’ll conclude in a Ruskinian vain by looking back to the Middle Ages, when works of art were appreciated in themselves as objects imbued with the artist’s presence and not merely embossed with a label—a time when artistic creativity stemmed from workshops which were recognized for the quality of their production. Fashion houses are, after all, workshops for the creation of wearable art. Bourdin’s oeuvre reminds us to appreciate the art of fashion, which should take precedent over any million-dollar price tag or face.
Image: Flickr – EwaHB