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"Fallen Frames" by Guy Bourdin reproduced by permission Copyright: The Estate of of Guy Bourdin courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery

Guy Bourdin created many signature photographs of beautiful women doing back bends, displaying flawless physiques in vulnerable positions to be taken advantage of, if only voyeuristically. He was a fashion photographer who worked for French Vogue for over 30 years, from 1955 to 1987. Especially during the '70s, his work filled the pages of international fashion magazines. Generally, his muses wear stiletto heels, lots of lip gloss, and not-terribly-subtle stripes of blush on preternaturally high cheekbones. Bourdin tended toward the plastic, not the earthy, and clearly preferred the glamorous to the sensible. His models' gazes almost never meet the camera. His 1967 ad campaign for Charles Jourdan shoes breathed new life into the fetish-footwear market.
  The perverse esthetecization of violence, however, is Bourdin's most distinctive calling card. He's known for depicting women tied up, compromised—or dead. A black limousine with tinted windows is parked on a city street, the door ajar. A woman's leg dangles out. Mysterious fluid, possibly bodily, is on the sidewalk. Another photo shows a well-coifed woman in profile. A stream of shiny red fluid, obviously alluding to blood, spills from her mouth. It's graphically compelling. But that's only the tip of the iceberg.
"Red Hat" by Guy Bourdin reproduced with permission: Copyright the Estate of Guy Bourdin courtesy Pace Mac/Gill Gallery. Bourdin was clearly familiar with the adrenaline rush that comes the wicked, and also knows that the impulse to gawk at a disaster scene is a little kinky. We shouldn't look, but can't help yearn to. He gives us an image of little girls siting in a bed, their hair crimped, tricked out in Jon Benet Ramsey-style make up, providing a peephole to a world we want to see. It's not that his work condones violence and pedophilia. Rather, he exploits the fact that these things move us. He recognized that the things that turn us on are not always puritanical and politically correct. The niche Bourdin carved out for himself was truly on the cutting edge—exhilaratingly inappropriate and transgressive. Bourdin learned from the Surrealists, who inspired him: the bizarre fascinates us.
   Bourdin also has humor, evidenced by my favorite photograph in the show, which depicts a woman collapsed to the floor, a schmaltzy gilt-framed painting of a ship at sea fallen off the wall and onto her head (see photo top of page). It ridicules classiness (signified by played-out symbols of status such as art, the shapely legs of the model, and expensive-looking high-heeled shoes) and usurps tastefulness by being hip. The image is sexy, surprising and funny, all at the same time.
Book Cover  Much can be said of Bourdin's legacy. He blazed the trail for contemporary art heroes like Paul McCarthy and Matthew Barney, who mingle the disgusting and the sublime. He beat Jay MacInerny to the punch line of '80s-style decadence—by a decade. Without Bourdin, one wonders whether or not we would have Steven Meisel's fabulous Versace ad campaign featuring pill-popping, blue eye shadow-wearing Hollywood housewives—to say nothing of Helmut Newton-style nudes. It's surprising that the first exhibition of Bourdin's work is happening only now, a decade after the photographer's death. For the pleasure, we can thank Samuel Bourdin, Guy's son, who has been trying to poshumously re-contextualize his father as a fine artist. The show, open through Oct. 20, is well worth seeing. It comes in conjunction with the publication of the first monograph of his work, Exhibit A: Guy Bourdin (Bulfinch Press,$75) order direct from Amazon.

- Sara Valdez

( All photos are reproduced with permission: Copyright the Estate of Guy Bourdin & Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, 32 East 57th Street, New York. For more information contact Jennifer Hoover 759-7999. )