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)
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.
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.