The Dreamlife of Angels & Demons
Guy Bourdin for French Vogue
Steven Meisel, “State of Emergency” series for Italian Vogue
Pairing the works of late fashion photographer (in reality, a misunderstood surrealist master) Guy Bourdin with the glossy resume of his less worthy successor, Steven Meidel is like comparing apples and blood oranges. The strange fruit, an ancient citrus hybrid, with its bitter flavor and mesmerizing crimson color, shares an almost inescapable fact with a Bourdin “still life,” leaving behind an unforgettable bruise that last for weeks and even years without the hope of amnesia as anesthesia. Still, the nameless collagists at The Image Archive wants us to believe in their nonexistent dialogue through the rhetoric of the photo essay (see video below), inflating the blase beauty of one with the iconographic might of the other. Establishing space in the first few seconds, we journey from physical landmarks to geographies less familiar, as shadows and shoulders collide into the unknown. It’s a cleverly edited video, a readymade cliff-notes introduction that should, at least, invite viewers to approach two separate careers with enough biographical history on hand.
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While I’ll credit Meidel for taking liberties with the typical fashion shoot, tackling contemporary political sentiments through high production values replete with statuesque supermodels and trendy couture, his radicalism whimpers like a caged beast, suitable for city billboards and the big heads at Conde Nast HQ—wholly accessible, rarely affective. Representative of his oeuvre, the photograph above intends to capture feminine duress under the police state, but what we have sadly is merely a pretty face under the boot of a fashionable fascist. Relying heavily on photogenic poses, Meidel never reaches for the tiny detail that would complicate the very subject of our attention. Terror evaporates just as her doll eyes signify nothing but the camera’s reflection. In Bourdin’s photograph, the curious finger on the ivory doorbell makes you wonder in fear of the revelation just to the left.
Bourdin, on the other hand, applied strenuous pressure to his creative process, like a ringmaster to a harem of Botticelli angels, he churned out snapshots of bodies, mangled and tested to their limits. No longer just mannequins primed to sell clothes, these were daredevil artists ready for the next Cirque du Soleil audition. Adding to this “enactment of the impossible,” Tim Blanks (notable fashion writer) sums up Bourdin’s death-drive:
Throughout his career, he remained an artist manqué, composing and reordering the elements he saw through his viewfinder until they matched the pictures he imagined in his head (and sketched in his notebooks). Except they never did.
As noted by other critics, Bourdin was obsessed with scenarios conjured by a childhood watching the film-noirs imported to France from Hollywood and informed by schooling in European art history. Never hesitating on aesthetic honesty over sartorial concerns, his repertoire (yes, i used the taboo R word) desires for a world of cinematic conceits, where female figures are obscured by frames and forces that pay little attention to their presence. It’s almost like a picture taken by someone who happens to walk by a gruesome murder, indifferent to sensationalism, slightly aroused but never masturbatory. Comparisons to Stanley Kubrick are apt, but these are facile bullet points that could point to anyone, such as Godard or Varda, instead, a painting by Magritte should suffice as a teasing doorway to Bourdin’s infinite fantasies, which themselves are self-effacing artifices. We recognize the amount of hard work behind the illusion, though looking at a mirror doesn’t necessarily mean we’re safe.
René Magritte’s “Dangerous Liaisons”
Guy Bourdin made a series of 16mm “home” movies of his photo shoots, this happens to be my favorite.