>> For my birthday on Saturday… I saw some exhibitions and had a lovely nice dinner and was back by 10pm with a cup of tea in my hand. Welcome to my thirties. Ok, I omitted the fact that I did go out on an all-night rager in Tokyo the night before and was still recuperating from jet lag. Still, the quiet birthday did give me a chance to attempt to chug through the clog of style and fashion related exhibitions that London is enjoying at the moment. It’s not drudgery when everything is worth the trek and the crowds. I’ve still yet to see the excellent Women, Fashion Power at the Design Museum, Knitwear from Chanel to Westwood at the Fashion and Textile Museum, Horst at the V&A and Allen Jones at the Royal Academy of Arts.
I attempted two in a day to compare two very different photographers of different eras, who both have distanced relationships with the products they are photographing. First was Guy Bourdin: Image Maker at Somerset House and the second was Viviane Sassen’s Analemma: Fashion Photography from 1992 to 2012 at the Photographer’s Gallery. There’s no superlatives that hasn’t been said before about Bourdin’s work and specifically this exhibition. It is the biggest exhibition of his work with plenty of unseen images, films and other visual material that reveal sides to Bourdin that the fairweather photography or fashion fan may not know. A series of photographs taken around Britain for the shoe brand Charles Jourdan (for whom Bourdin shot many advertising campaigns) in 1979, for instance opens the exhibition as we discover a humourous and detached oddness – a world away from the glossy-lipped hyper sexy femmes of his editorial work.
On display are plenty of those famously surreal images as well where sense of proportion is distorted as well as many where the female subject is obscured and shrouded in sex-tinged mystery, namely shot for Paris Vogue, with whom Bourdin collaborated with extensively in the sixties and seventies.
More revealing were the sketches on display that mocked up the shot that Bourdin wanted to create as well as magazine layouts with meticulous notations about dimensions. These were examples of Bourdin’s exacting approach towards his photographs. Nothing was spontaneous or haphazard. This evidence of planning and eye for detail only adds potency to the final image.
I especially enjoyed the showreel of Super-8 films which Bourdin shot. These were less about precision and more about the energy on set that you can’t quite glean from the resulting photography.
I also loved seeing Bourdin’s early paintings (they’re undated by probably date to the 1950s) and how they would directly correlate with his photographs.
But of course the exhibition isn’t a complete tell-all. You still leave wondering what exactly is Bourdin’s relationship with the fashion and women he photographed so extensively. It’s not as simple as calling it out as “sexual objectification” because it feels so much more complex than that. The image leaves you hanging and that tension is difficult to explain in an exhibition. Perhaps that’s why he shunned books, exhibitions and even awards.
Over at the Photographer’s Gallery, one of my favourite contemporary fashion photographers Viviane Sassen has taken over the top floor, not with static hung frames but with a moving “analemma” of 350 of her fashion photography looped into a video projection, moving across the walls and floors. You’ll see there’s a slight graininess to the images below. They don’t need to be crystal clear though to convey Sassen’s pre-occupation with disgured forms and using clothes and background to sculpt an image. The body is always manipulated somehow either with the clothes themselves or the angle which Sassen shoots from. Sassen has said herself that she has a love/hate relationship with fashion. That shows in her photography but you wind up being intrigued by the new form that she has created be it an inside out skirt pulled over the head or a shadowy figure striking an abstract pose.