Deep in the heart of Paris, down a quiet half-lit street, the deepest corners of a darkened shop front seemingly come to life. A thick band of soft, yet expository, afternoon sunshine pours though the window bathing three figures in it’s glare. Forgotten about, they have only their white cloth hats, resembling swim caps, stretched too tightly over their baby smooth and perfectly shaped scalps. Wrapped up and contorted in their overwhelming emotion they are apparently unconcerned with the fact that they are on display and completely naked, the contours of their anatomically correct forms bouncing light back from bony hips, bare breasts, flat polished stomachs and outstretched palms. One could deduce that they are used to being on display, used to it and even thankful for the attention from passing onlookers, all the while being acutely aware that those observers are seeing only the clothes and using their bodies as frames for the imagination – ‘How would that dress look on me?’. Without clothes these human imitations are redundant. In the same moment, on the street outside, enclosed between the high walls of grand urban buildings, two mannequin-like woman are poised in cat-walk positions, arms and legs straight and high and faces cool and expressionless, oblivious to their wanton observers, used to being observed and most probably bored with it – the opposite of their plastic counterparts…
This apparently title-less image by Guy Bourdin was published in the May 1975 issue of Vogue Paris and as I sadly cannot find much information on it I have gathered evidence from Bourdin’s expansive life’s work in order to analyse it as thoroughly as possible. During the 70’s Bourdin was at the height of his career, his highly saturated imagery and tense psychological themes were proven to sell product and thus he was highly sought after by the likes of big fashion designers’ Charles Jourdan, Chanel, Ungaro, Issy Miyake among many others. Bourdin worked for Vogue France alongside his contemporary Helmut Newton and together they largely dominated the fashion photography scene throughout much of the 70’s. Newton and Bourdin’s work was similar in that it reflected the changes taking place at the time, women’s newfound sexual and professional freedom in particular, and yet their techniques were almost polar opposites. Where Newton preferred his model’s to look more alive, using light and make-up to make their skin flushed and eyes bright, Bourdin was using light/shadow and exaggerated doll-like makeup to give his model’s skin a more deathly pallor, adding a more sinister touch. Alongside his penchant for pale-skinned models, Bourdin was more concerned with the potential narrative’s in an image and less interested in the product’s he was being asked to sell. Remarkably this made him more successful as it was this fresh new look that made readers of the magazine stop in their tracks – the page demanded attention!
The Untitled image in question is now over forty years old and yet it does not appear particularly dated. Apart from the models’ big permed hair and the box-shape of the yellow taxi there isn’t much to give it away. It is now trendy to give photographs and fashion photography a vintage feel and that presumably helps to muffle the years. The intended market of this photograph, as for all the ads in Vogue Paris, was women in their 30-40s who were required to dress up, for work or because of their social status, and who were therefore interested in the latest fashions. Now, forty years on, when the image has been digitised and exhibited in many different formats and venues, the image has a new market. The products which it is advertising, of which it is difficult to tell without any context, are presumably no longer for sale and the viewer’s are now seeing Bourdin’s masterpiece in a different light – to appreciate it, interpret it for what it is, to compare it with many of his other surviving works, or perhaps even to purchase it as an artwork.
The image is square in dimension, the top and bottom half of the frame are deeply shadowed creating a kind of widescreen effect and focusing viewer’s on the middle section of the image whilst also creating a more subconscious sense of claustrophobia and containment. The image has a deep depth of field, creating a very 3D effect, which is essential in how this image works, with a shallow depth of field some important elements in the frame such as the model’s outside the window could turn in to a blur of bokeh and the image would take on a new meaning. The image has a documentary feel because of this honest and open style – nothing is left to the imagination, all parts of the frame can be examined in detail and so therefore the surrealist aspect is far more unsettling – it is believable and makes the viewer question reality. Bourdin’s work was usually very vibrant and multi-coloured, sometimes incandescent, however this image is quite realistic in its use of colour, (a faded blue window frame, the dull yellow of a taxi, grimy grey buildings receive no enhancement), and this adds to the aforementioned documentary style and its ability to shock – how can a plastic face who’s expression can’t be changed display so much emotion that it reaches in to the depths of your soul? Unrealistic colour use would have immediately put the image in to an obvious surrealism category – this is fake, nothing to worry about, this is just an advert.
In conclusion, this highly intriguing and mysterious image from the pages of an old Vogue magazine, has continued to grip and engage viewers for over forty years and is showing no intentions of letting up. Although Bourdin didn’t show any interest in leaving a legacy behind he most certainly has and this image is proof that his fashion and advertisement photography remains unmatched in its ability to shock, move and fascinate at the time of, and long after, the products he was commissioned to advertise have sold out.