Talking Bourdin and Film With Shelly Verthime
Legendary Paris department store Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche is currently playing host to Guy Bourdin, Ses Films, an installation of 15 clips from films Bourdin shot from the 1960′s through the 1980′s. According to Shelly Verthime, who curated the show with Bourdin’s son Samuel, the films operate as both a time capsule and a window onto Bourdin’s creative process. “Making these films, I believe, was part of his obsessive search for the perfect image,” Verthime explains. “You see him experimenting with different angles, different lighting. What we see in those famous photos is the end result of this process, involving so many tiny adjustments.”
Verthime worked with Le Bon Marché to make sure that visitors to Ses Films felt that they were entering Bourdin’s world. The exhibition, which runs through October 29, is housed in a discrete area within the store. Visitors pass through a series of immersive spaces, catching glimpses of video on mirrors, or finding their own shadows reflected on the screen. That experience will surely whet fans’ appetite for the upcoming documentary on Bourdin that Verthime is working with the photographer’s estate to produce. The release date on that film is undecided, but in the meantime, Verthime tells Style.com about entering the mind of fashion’s surrealist master.
One of the things you always hear about Guy Bourdin is that his work is “cinematic.” Even when he was shooting an ad campaign, like Charles Jourdan, his photos seemed like stills from a strange movie. There is an implied narrative that you can’t quite figure out. It’s interesting to discover that Bourdin actually shot film as well, but, interestingly, he didn’t seem to use that medium for telling a story.
No, not at all. He wasn’t a “filmmaker,” per se. There’s no artistic ambition. What he liked to do was use the film as a kind of visual notebook. We have two kinds of video in the show: footage he shot on the set, and footage he shot on his journeys, in Martinique, going from London to Brighton, and so on. On the set, you see him taking stills, adjusting the backdrops, working with the models. It’s very intimate. The traveling footage is closer in spirit to what he would do with Polaroids. You see croppings of landscapes, people shot from the legs down. All these angles and compositions he used later.
I understand Bourdin painted as well. What do you think he got from experimenting with these different media?
Well, he was a protégé of Man Ray, you know, and Man Ray and all the surrealists worked with lots of different media. And his approach to his photographs is really that of an artist. He was searching, searching all the time for modes of expression and new ways of seeing. It’s impossible to sum up all the work he did—black-and-white landscapes, hundreds of thousands of Polaroids, paintings, sketches. It’s endless. He was a compulsive creator.
Are there any images that are particularly resonant to you?
All of it is fascinating to me. In fact, it’s the mass of it that’s fascinating most of all. As you go through the archives, you begin to see these recurrences: low sky, sharp shadow and light, this tight composition. It’s like there are all these Polaroids where he’s shot various landscapes at the same angle, with the same crop. It’s almost the same shot, but not quite. You feel him searching for something. You can see the same process in the film of Dominique Sanda. It’s in the show. She’s quite an iconic French actress, and she lives in Buenos Aires now, but she actually flew to Paris for our opening. The film of her is really special. He shot on 16mm, which was unusual for him, and the footage is very graphic, very abstract, and the film is very slow. You literally see through his eye as he searches for the image, moving light and shadow.
You’ve come up with a rather unusual installation of this work at Le Bon MarchéWhat’s with all the mirrors?
The mirror is a formal element that Bourdin used a lot in his work. Beyond that, I felt it would be interesting to create this hall-of-mirrors effect, because I really wanted people to enter into this surreal world of Bourdin. I wanted it to be a total experience. In the dark, it’s like this dreamy, floating fantasy world. With the mirrors, there’s this play. You can’t quite figure out where the image is and you get lost. The night we opened, it was really interesting to see how long people stayed in the gallery.
I think that when most people hear about an exhibit at a store, they figure that some paintings or photographs or video is just being thrown up on the wall, next to the clothes.
I was lucky to work with a department store like this, because Le Bon Marché felt the strength of the films and understood their importance. They worked with me to create this bubble within the commercial space so you can enter and pass through these different emotions.
Undoubtedly, that speaks to Bourdin’s lasting influence. What is it about his work that makes him so influential, in your opinion?
The reason I wanted to work with the Bourdin estate to begin with was because I found his work timeless. That’s the word, really. He was such a visionary, and for me, he had the three elements of the real artist: the mind, the heart, and the eye. It was never about taking pretty pictures of beautiful models. He would go to museums with a magnifying glass to study the masters. He’d spend 40 hours working to perfect one shot. We are now producing a documentary about Bourdin and doing all these interviews with people he worked with, like Nicole Meyer and Grace Coddington. They all say that working with Guy Bourdin, there was a sense of purpose. The feeling was they weren’t just creating last season’s fashion coverage. They were creating art. There was a longevity to what he was doing, and you could even sense it on set. Like, the Charles Jourdan campaigns, that you mentioned, there’s a mise-en-scène, a story, a before feeling and an after feeling looking at the picture. He was a film director, in stills.