In the summer of 1979, several legs boarded a ferry travelling from Dieppe to Plymouth. However unlike most other legs making the journey, these didn’t have any feeling in their toes.
Accompanied by his partner, son, one photo assistant and several pairs of mannequin legs, Guy Bourdin embarked on a road trip around the UK, documented in the Walking Legs series now on show for the first time, at Somerset House. Curator Alistair O’Neill opens the exhibition – the first of the legendary Parisian fashion photographer’s work since the V&A’s way back in 2003 – with these images, testament to his artful composition. The show explores Bourdin’s legacy as image-maker; a fashion photographer who crafted pictures destined to endure far beyond the season and hold a timeless appeal.
“Bourdin was a consummate draghtsman,” Alistair says. Often he took very little interest in the model, composing scenes like an artist. “He carried around an orange Rhodia notebook which was full of little statements, rough sketches and gridded drawings” – snatches of images dreamt up before he photographed them. The notebooks follow no particular order – a detail Alistair loves – Bourdin would just open them up randomly to the first free page.
Along with the 22 photographs on display from Bourdin’s British road trip is captured in a short film. Bourdin never edited his films and this, more than any other, fits in a documentary tradition; capturing holiday-makers, their dogs, and the torso-less legs. His Super-8 fashion shorts are surreal hazy shots of red-lipped, rouged and naked nymphs slumbering or cavorting with ribbons and suited men.
Always the innovator, Bourdin’s advertorial campaigns were at times more experimental than his editorial work. A protégé of Man Ray, he photographed for Paris Vogue for the first time in 1955 and his campaigns for shoe designer Charles Jourdan led to sensational shoots; for one, he commissioned a giant shoe to prop in the centre of a New York hotel.
Across over 100 colour prints of Bourdin’s work, and paintings, drawings, sketches and notebooks, Alistair showcases the meticulous craftmanship behind the glossy images and the imagination that went into dreaming up these sartorial stories.
Guy Bourdin: Image-Maker is at at Somerset House from 27 November until 15 March 2015.