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6 July 2013

Guy Bourdin, Untouched

The Dark Room

In 2011 when Shelly Verthime was, in the words of Guy Bourdin’s son Samuel, ‘exploring, studying, plumbing the depths of my father’s archives and exhuming their substance’, she found a cardboard box containing a hundred brown paper postal envelopes, in each of which Guy Bourdin had placed a negative and the corresponding black and white print. The shock of discovery for Shelly Verthime can be shared by the public at the Rencontres d’Arles in the guise of these ‘Untouched’ images.

They date from the beginning of the fifties. His vanishing points, perspectives, planks dappled with shadow, and trees that look as if they were drawn in pen and ink are all evidence of his pictorial radicalism. They nod admiringly in the direction of great masters of photography like Eugène Atget, Berenice Abbott, and Man Ray. In 1951, Guy Bourdin met Man Ray, who wrote the preface to his first exhibition catalogue; Bourdin at that time exhibited under the pseudonym Edwin Hallan. Those images were a treasure in themselves in that they marked a turning point in his career—a new a range of expressivity was appearing in both his photography and his drawing. His drawings were the subject of another exhibition in 1954. These images date from before 1955, the start of his great adventure with Vogue Paris, then edited by Edmonde Charles-Roux. They are often captioned in telegramese style: ‘Pont des Arts, Paris: November 1952. Figures with umbrellas crossing’, or ‘Deligny Baths on the Seine in Paris: July 1952. Parisian tanning his back’.

France at that time was just recovering from the Second World War, there was still rationing. The insalubrious courtyards, the empty, wet streets and the pale, willowy figures conjure up the seamy side of the city—a far cry from the smiling photos of Saint-Germain-des-Prés and the couturiers’ boutiques in the Avenue Montaigne. Guy Bourdin was only twenty-four and what he has delivered here is an extremely rare self-portrait. His images are notes and chronicles that were to provide the structure for his own research. Following in the footsteps of Stieglitz, he seems to be saying, in his own way, ‘All that I am trying to do is produce an image of what I saw, not what the event meant to me’. The first thing he does is accentuate the rhythm and eliminate the details, so that the lines are enhanced.This is redolent of Mondrian painting his way towards pure abstraction. Guy Bourdin was honing a sensibility whose edge, fifteen years later, would be sharpened even further by colour. It was already present in such obsessions as voyeuristic open doors and reflections of the image within the image in the manner of the mirrors of Jan van Eyck or Velasquez. For Shelly Verthime, beyond their interest as a visual account of post-Second World War Paris, these images already reveal signs of the work that would follow. To George Eastman’s late 19th century exhortation ‘to write with light’, Guy Bourdin replied with photos that, without giving it a name, determined for ever the path towards the imaginary: it was his dark room.

Laurence Benaïm, director of Stiletto magazine.

Exhibition venue: Espace Van Gogh, Rencontres d’Arles 2013.