Looking at Adverts: 7

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In my last blog I mentioned Edward Bernays, who dramatically transformed advertising techniques by using psychoanalysis and knowledge of the unconscious mind to sell products in a way that was based on want (often driven by unconscious desire) rather than need (rational, conscious motives). His methods changed the visual style of advertising from predominantly text-based, informative ads to highly stylised and often glamorous image-led design. The adverts stopped telling consumers what the product would do for them, but implied that they could do a lot. In the 1970’s French fashion photographer Guy Bourdin seemed to take this a step further. He fetishistically cropped and fragmented the figure of the model, often reducing it to a small part such as a foot or leg. Sometimes the body-part of the real model was replaced by pieces of a mannequin.

In psychoanalysis fetishism is a form of sexuality in which a single aspect of a person, such as their hair colour or foot size, becomes the dominant source of attraction for the fetishist. Sometimes the real body of another is dispensed with entirely, and an inanimate object, such as a shoe, is desired instead. The fetishisation of the female body is often cited by feminists as one of the most common forms of objectification in film and photography. In her seminal text on the representation of gender in Hollywood films called Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema Laura Mulvey describes how women are made to look so beautiful and eye catching that they are reduced to a face or body-part rather than portrayed as believable, 3-dimensional characters. She describes how male characters actively drive the storyline, while female characters are often outside of the narrative of the film because they are only there to be looked at. Because of this the audience tends to identify with the male character and objectify the female character. (Article available to read here, student login needed)

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In Bourdin’s images the legs are doubly fetishistic – they are fragmented body parts and inanimate objects because they belong to a mannequin. By posing the legs ‘in action’ the images humorously play on the ‘life-like’ illusion that can be created photographically. The legs appear to be moving, frozen mid-gesture like a film still, but we know that they are not because they are inanimate objects. I think this is where the cleverness lies in Bourdin’s photographs. They are fetishistic in the way Laura Mulvey describes, but the female figure hovers between inanimate object and narrative-driving character.

I recently visited ‘Guy Bourdin: Image Maker’, an exhibition at Somerset House in London. I had always thought his photographs were fetishistic, but as I walked around the exhibition I became convinced that something more complex was at play. There were copious images that seem to repeat ideas and visual motifs over and over again, almost like a formula. Towards the end of the exhibition I was confronted by an image that suddenly threw the entire exhibition into a new light.

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The large photograph depicts two models walking down a street, viewed from within a shop. Inside the shop a group of mannequins appear to be watching the passers-by on the street. The mannequins are only wearing swimming hats and seem to gesture towards the models, asking them for their swimming costumes. The models are staring straight ahead as they walk in a regimented or robotic fashion.  I wonder whether the models are real people or mannequins who have escaped the window? Having viewed many images in the exhibition that confounded my experience of movement and stillness, animate and inanimate, it is very difficult to say. I wonder if Bourdin is suggesting that there is equivalence between consumers and mass-produced commercial bodies. When we buy the latest fashions do we turn ourselves into mannequins?

I find this work humourous and thought provoking, but that is just my interpretation. Bourdin’s photographs still court controversy 40 years after they were first created – what do you think?

I will be discussing the legacy of Guy Bourdin in relation to my own photographs at Somerset House on Friday 13th March. Details are available on their website.



  1. rubidium86 28 February 2015 at 9:52 am

    Hi Dawn,
    Thank you for your thoughts on Guy Bourdin. I am on an OCA study visit next weekend to see the Somerset House exhibition – which I am looking forward to more than I originally thought! I’m not particularly familiar with his work so it’s good to have this thought nudge ahead of seeing it for myself.
    Best Wishes

    1. dawn woolley 4 March 2015 at 12:25 pm

      Hi Chris, let me know what you think after seeing the exhibition! best Dawn

  2. jsumb 1 March 2015 at 8:20 pm

    Leaving aside Berneys’ work at the political level – even if we would want to – the primary, secondary and tertiary ambition of his ‘focus-group’ work was to deliver the means to trigger the ‘compulsion to consume’. Encouraging the notion of consumption of items often completely unrelated to their need – after all he is credited with making it ’empowering’ for women to smoke, whereas previously it was largely a male preserve. Bourdin’s imagery illustrates, does it not, Mulveys’ politic by both pandering to the Male gaze – very cinematic objectification (reducing the female to bits and pieces) – AND gesturing to what a Bernays focus group might come up with, get this hosiery and feel good to be looked at.
    Those mannequin’s are both inside and outside of the glass window; Bourdin has them so, directed by Berneys , adroitly summarized by Mulvey and segmented by a materialist society.

    1. dawn woolley 4 March 2015 at 12:29 pm

      Good points, the aim of focus groups certainly is to increase consumption of the products they are discussing but I am not sure that suggesting the consumers are mass produced mannequins would be one of their chosen methods to do it! By making the subjects into mannequins and vice versa, isn’t he making all those mechanisms of the male gaze and consumerism very visible for the viewer?

  3. Blas González 28 March 2017 at 6:52 pm

    I think the messages of the mannequin could be a just the opposite: The two models are dressed and don’t have a swimming hat, while the mannequins are deseperating trying to catch their attention from the “darkness” of the shop, maybe trying to advert them to adopt the fashion trend of the majority (they are three!!). The model seem to ignore the advert, walking firmly towards the light (using sunglasses to protect their eyes)… The photography tries to convince costumer how free from imposed fashions they would feel buying those swimming costumes.

  4. Ivan Radman 8 September 2017 at 8:11 am

    From an advertising point, Bourdin’s photographs show us a vivid, creative way of presenting products in order to broaden the range of customers. On his ads, we see parts of a person rather than a whole body not just because it is different, ’artsy’, but also because it doesn’t indicate anything more than gender (today even that is questionable). Age, status, ethnicity, even the colours of the textile are all hidden in order not to limit the potential customer, as if to say: It is for everybody with good taste.

    From an artistic point, I don’t make any distinction in Bourdin’s work between the ‘real’ people and the mannequins. They are the same, always presenting fashion, whether it is showing clothes, footwear or just make-up. Personality, identity or any other human feature is reduced to accommodate the physical display, as seen from a male perspective. In the case of the above-mentioned image from Vogue Paris, May, 1975, for me the key element is the position of the camera, shooting from inside the shop. It emphasises the notion that ‘the grass is greener on the other side’. At the same time, it is unusual, because the gaze is usually directed towards the shop window, not the other way around, and with this photograph Bourdin stresses the idea that there is no difference.


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