Remembering Guy Bourdin
The Costume Institute at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art gave the topic of models and muses a gala spin on Monday night. Now, the Wapping Project is getting into the act: The show Unseen Guy Bourdin arrives at the East London arts center this weekend, and its opening Saturday night will be hosted by none other than Bourdin muse Nicolle Meyer. Star of many of the photographer’s most iconic images, including 30 of his game-changing ads for Charles Jourdan, Meyer is a less immediately identifiable muse than some. As often as not, Bourdin kept Meyer’s face obscured, hiding it under props, snapping it from some bizarre angle, cropping it out of shots entirely. Their work together is an inventory of dislocated body parts. But in the years since Bourdin’s death, in 1991, Meyer has come to the fore, emerging as one of the key caretakers of the Bourdin legacy. She compiled the images in the two-volume book, Guy Bourdin: A Message for You (Steidl, 2006), for example, and here, she talks to Style.com about life behind the scenes of the surreal.
How did you meet Guy Bourdin?
It was a very normal thing—I was a model on a go-see. I had just started modeling and I only had a couple of tear sheets, and not having come from a fashion background at all—I was a dancer—I had no sense of his notoriety. That week, he booked me on a job for French Vogue. I was terribly excited, of course, to have this first Vogue opportunity, and then when we took the photos, I mean, they were odd. My head was missing, or it was just my leg. Nothing I could use for my modeling book, in other words.
Were you bummed?
No, because I think I understood, intuitively, where he was coming from. I was only 17 when I met Guy, but my parents were art dealers, and I’d grown up surrounded by all this work, all this imagery. When he shot me like San Sebastian, tied to a stake, with blood dripping off my nipples, I had a reference for that, you know? Looking back, I think that first experience working together, he was testing me. I think he wanted to see how far he could go. And then ultimately, I was unveiled.
You worked with Guy Bourdin pretty consistently for three years, between 1977 and 1980, and that was at the start of your modeling career. I imagine that wound up shaping your expectations of what a shoot was supposed to be like, and how a model and a photographer should collaborate. Once you went on to work with other photographers, did it make you look back on those experiences with Bourdin and think, oh, actually that was not the normal thing at all?
Well, I did wind up working with other photographers at the same time that I was shooting with Guy; for those three or four years, I was doing quite well. I don’t want to say I didn’t enjoy those other experiences—I mean, what’s not to like about jumping up and down and looking pretty?—but working with Guy was more interesting. It was like acting, or being involved in some strange theater piece. He had total creative control, time was never an issue, and his ingenuity about how to achieve an image was just incredible. You have to remember, this was before digital, before any of that software came along to help create effects, like in the Charles Jourdan ad where I’m tilted back at an angle I couldn’t possible be standing in on my own, and behind me, there’s a chair tilted back on two legs at the same angle. How do you do that? I loved the process of figuring that stuff out.
So? How did you do it?
That photo? There was a small rod sticking out of the wall, and I had to lean back on it. Thank God I had good stomach muscles at the time.
Are there any other shots you remember as particular technical challenges?
Another Charles Jourdan ad—we were trying to achieve a Spider-woman effect, a woman hanging from the ceiling, wearing six shoes. He just wanted to see our legs. I think, if I remember correctly, that he took ironing boards, and sort of jutted them out of the walls, and we had to lie on those boards, perfectly still, holding the pose. That was a challenge. Sometimes the shoots never worked out. He’d have to abandon the concept after building the set, getting everyone there, and attempting it.
Do you have a favorite Guy Bourdin image?
Graphically, my favorite—and one I own, in fact—is a photo from the Pentax calendar. It’s just my naked bottom sticking out from under a bed, and on the bed, there’s a stuffed gray elephant. Everything’s very pink. The bedspread is pink, my bottom’s pink…You know, people always dwell on this idea that Guy was, oh, misogynist somehow, or perverse. But I look at a shoot like that and what I see is a photographer who was just very painterly. What made his work unexpected was the context, that it was an ad or a magazine editorial. Now we’re used to seeing that kind of thing, because Guy has been so influential.
And what about a favorite image, in terms of one that you look at and see a particularly happy memory?
Oh, there’s a whole collage of memories in my head from those years I was working with Guy. But I guess if I had to pick one, I’d say that San Sebastian photo. We shot that at this amazing property Karl Lagerfeld used to have outside Paris, in the country. We were staying at his château, and in the evenings, everything was lit by candlelight and Karl would sort of be floating through the rooms.
How gothic. I mean, that sounds like the set-up for a vampire novel.
I suppose it does. I remember the whole thing to be really like a dream. I remember Guy standing out in the beautiful weather, almost, like, painting this image with his camera. This otherworldly aura would always emerge, on his shoots. It was like being in a dream world. It was great.