My primary passion is “street photography” — yet I find my biggest inspiration for my work comes from photographers who aren’t “street photographers.”
Enter Guy Bourdin: a fashion photographer who revolutionized the field (alongside Helmut Newton). Bourdin was one of the first photographers to mix fashion, fine art, and commercial photography. His photos are full of suspense, mystery, tinged with sex, drama, and death.
I’d have to say — I am currently thoroughly enamored and inspired by his work. Most of his work is constructed through his mind (he drew a lot of his scenes, and was a perfectionist). He is known for throwing blue dye into the water to make the water more blue, for painting grass green, and obsessing over every detail.
What are some lessons I learned from Bourdin? I explore more below:
1. What’s outside of the frame is more important than what is inside the frame
What I love about the photos of Guy Bourdin is that the viewer becomes a part of the story. The photos of Bourdin are open-ended, which allow the viewer to make up his/her own story in the photo.
Which brings me to the idea that what is outside of the frame is more important than what is inside the frame.
The story doesn’t exist inside the frame, but what exists outside the frame.
The story exists in the mind of the viewer.
So when it comes to your photography, see how you can create mystery and suspense in your images. Whether you setup your scenes or not, try to deliberately leave out certain details in your photographs. The more open-ended your photos are, the more engaging they will be to your viewer.
2. Mix art and commerce
One of the most revolutionary things that Guy Bourdin did was to mix his photography with commerce.
For example, Bourdin is best known for his shoe campaign for Roland Jourdan. Traditionally, advertising photos focused solely on the product. However what Bourdin did was to create an alternate, hyper-realistic, surreal reality — in which the shoes were simply another actor of the scene.
The campaign was sensational, according to Gérard Tavenas (who ran Jourdan’s Paris office) said that people were appalled at first. They hated it. But as time went on, Tavenas said:
”It was as if we were publishing not advertisements but a paperback novel or a comic strip. People were hungry to see what was next.”
The famous portrait photographer Albert Watson also has mentioned that Guy Bourdin was one of the first revolutionaries who brought “fine art” into the field of commercial/advertising/fashion photography.
Don’t let convention put barriers on you. If you want to innovate with your photography and mix disparate fields, don’t let anyone stop your creative ideas.
3. Draw inspiration from outside arts
If you look at the work of Guy Bourdin, you can see an array of inspirations for him. His inspirations include Edward Weston (who made him realize that photography could be art), Man Ray (Bourdin’s mentor), and surrealist painters Magritte and Balthus, and Spanish surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel. Other inspirations include Alfred Hitchcock and Lewis Carol.
One thing I’ve been realizing about my photography is this: to truly innovate, create original art, and to evolve is to combine other forms of art into your work.
Don’t limit yourself to just photography. Draw inspiration from painting, film, or even novels.
By combining all the outside forms of art that inspire you, you will create a distinct style.
4. Take total control
One lesson I learned from Guy Bourdin is he was a perfectionist, who needed absolute control.
For example, whenever he would present his photos to French Vogue, instead of presenting the editors with an array of images to choose from, he only presented them one. Francine Crescent said: ”Guy brought us one picture-only the one.”
Bourdin was such a perfectionist that he destroyed photos he didn’t use by cutting them in half.
Furthermore, his photos showed his passion for meticulous compositions, and that he was a master of color and light. He built a lot of the sets for photos before, and would be extremely demanding from his models.
It is very rare that we have these kind of photographers or artists anymore — that don’t compromise, have a strong singular vision, and demand total control.
If you have a day job and shoot photography for a hobby, consider yourself blessed. You have absolute control and freedom over your photography. You dictate how you shoot, when to shoot, what photos to show, and what photos not to show.
Realize how blessed you are, because many wedding and commercial photographers don’t have this luxury. They are bound to their clients, and most of them don’t have the spine to demand total control (they often compromise their artistic vision).
So if you are an independent photographer (or even a commercial photographer) try your best to demand total control.
5. Aim for perfection
Going off the prior point, Guy Bourdin aimed for perfection in his photographs. For example, hear this story when he shot a photo called “Water Nymph” (it started as a simple shoot for British Vogue of a model swimming naked):
“‘But Bourdin decided the water wasn’t blue enough,” Grace Coddington says. ‘So he tried to dye the sea blue. But every time we got it blue enough a wave came in and washed out again. We were trying stronger and stronger dyes. So he decided to have the girl flying over the water. He built a trestle. But the tide came in, and it collapsed. We cancelled the shoot. It cost us a lot of money.’
If you look at his photos, most of them look “photoshopped.” But mind you, this is way before the days of photoshop.
Bourdin would often start off by drawing his photo shoots, and trying to execute the story he had in his mind. You can see how meticulously each element in his frame is in his photos, the contrasting and juxtaposing colors, as well as the expressions from the models.
I don’t think there is such a thing as “perfection” in a photograph. But I think what we should do is this: aim for perfection according to your own standards. Aim to make photos that please yourself, and try to make the best photographs you possibly can. Don’t settle for half-good.
6. Cultivate your own skills
Guy Bourdin’s main passion was painting— but early on he realized that his works were simply “mediocre derivatives” of paintings from his heroes such as Balthus, Francis Bacon, and Stanley Spencer. Feeling inadequate, he decided to pick up a camera after seeing an artistic photo of a pepper by Edward Weston. Bourdin also drew inspiration from Ansel Adams, and the aesthetic possibilities of photography.
Which made me realize— we all need idols and masters when we are starting off in any creative art. When I started my photography, I tried to copy my idols (Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bruce Gilden, Martin Parr, William Eggleston, Daido Moriyama, and Josef Koudelka). However realize that if you really want to create a name for yourself, you need to break off the shackles of your masters and pursue your own direction.
Guy Bourdin never exhibited his photos or produced a book in his lifetime. He refused to make prints for collectors, and hated any form of public attention. He even refused the Grand Prix National de la Photographie when it was offered to him, because he didn’t believe in their standards.
Furthermore, Bourdin had a tumultuous personal life. Many of his ex-girlfriends and wives either killed themselves (or attempted to kill themselves). A lot of people say that is what inspired a lot of his macabre, strange obsession with death and sexuality.
However for the models who worked with him, they often called him a kind man, who was just a bit strange and cuckoo.
Regardless, myself and many other photographers have gained tons of inspiration from him. He was a master of light, color, and the stage. He created this epic dramas from his own imagination, and would photograph relentlessly until he made the image which satisfied him.
And so the ultimate lesson is this: you are your own worst critic. Therefore work hard to please yourself, and aim for the closest thing to “perfection” (however you define that). Don’t settle. Don’t compromise. And do the work you were destined to create.
Learn more about Guy Bourdin
More photos by Guy Bourdin
“He without a past has no future.”
If you want to become a great street photographer, don’t neglect studying from the masters of street photography.
If you want a distilled version, read my free ebook: “100 Lessons From the Masters of Street Photography.”
- Alec Soth
- Alex Webb
- Anders Petersen
- Andre Kertesz
- Blake Andrews
- Bruce Davidson
- Bruce Gilden
- Constantine Manos
- Daido Moriyama
- Dan Winters
- David Alan Harvey
- David Hurn
- Diane Arbus
- Dorothea Lange
- Elliott Erwitt
- Eugene Atget
- Eugene Smith
- Garry Winogrand
- Helen Levitt
- Henri Cartier-Bresson
- Jacob Aue Sobol
- Jeff Mermelstein
- Joel Meyerowitz
- Joel Sternfeld
- Josef Koudelka / Part 2
- Josh White
- Lee Friedlander
- Magnum Contact Sheets
- Magnum Photographers
- Mark Cohen
- Martin Parr
- Mary Ellen Mark
- Rene Burri
- Richard Avedon
- Richard Kalvar
- Robert Capa
- Robert Frank
- Saul Leiter
- Sergio Larrain
- Sebastião Salgado
- Shomei Tomatsu
- Stephen Shore
- The History of Street Photography
- Todd Hido
- Tony Ray-Jones
- Trent Parke
- Vivian Maier
- Walker Evans
- William Eggleston
- William Klein
- Zoe Strauss