Just/Talk: Justin Strauss with Samuel Bourdin

Guy Bourdin always wanted to be a painter. In a piece from The New Yorker from 1994, fellow photography contemporary Man Ray remarked of his work, “All the same, I can tell you that Guy Bourdin is trying with all his heart to be more than a good photographer.” In many ways, Bourdin succeeded. His work — oft recognized in fashion perpetuity in iconic ad campaigns for Chanel, Charles Jourdan and Bloomingdale’s and across the pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar — were a testament to the idea that “one image is a series of events.”

Here, his son, Samuel Bourdin, chats with longtime Ace friend and legendary DJ Justin Strauss about his father’s legacy, how the act of painting “changes the whole universe of how you approach the image,” the importance of tension in a photograph and finding untouched time capsules filled with his work in a family house from an Agnès Varda film.

Justin Strauss:
I guess I’m not the first person to tell you that you look a lot like your father.

Samuel Bourdin:
That’s what happens.

JS:
I discovered your dad’s work when I was 17 years old, I’d been into music my whole life. My dad was into music, my mom was into fashion.

SB:
Where were you living?

JS:
I lived in Long Island.

SB:
Oh, Long Island.

JS:
Grew up in Brooklyn till I was 9 years old and then we moved to Long Island. My mom had subscriptions to Vogue Magazine, Harpers Bazaar and I would look through them.

SB:
Was your mom American-born?

JS:
Yeah, both my parents. And I just came across the Charles Jourdan ad that your dad had shot of someone laying on the bed with the TV on in the background…and it just mesmerized me.

SB:
With the boy walking down the hallway—

JS:
Yeah.

SB:
That’s me.

Copyright The Guy Bourdin Estate 2019 / Courtesy of Louise Alexander Gallery

JS:
Oh, wow.

SB:
I was there.

JS:
Oh, wow. Amazing! That picture just caught my imagination like no other photograph had done before, and I wanted to find out everything I could about Guy Bourdin. I was 17, and I started looking into him and his work, and buying every magazine I could find. French Vogue, Elle, anything — I was just curious about this man and his work. His photographs really moved me.

SB:
You know, the image on the television was a random image—

JS:
Right.

SB:
But it fits perfectly. Because he would set up an environment, and then other things would happen by chance.

He was working a lot so I didn’t see him that much. But sometimes I’d go to the studio, and it was like the playground, you know.

JS:
Let’s talk a little about your childhood and your early years growing up.

SB:
I lived with my mom in Normandy, and then my mother died. Nobody told me.

JS:
You lived with your grandparents?

SB:
Yeah, there was another house. And one day I saw furniture in the garden, and I guess she must have died.

JS:
How old were you when your mom passed away?

SB:
Four and a half. Then one day I saw this guy. He came over and he picked me up and I didn’t recognize him. I remember when he picked me up, I remember being in the train and arriving at the train station.
And I remember when we opened the door to the apartment. And then we went to Martinique. We did a trip in ’71 or something. So it was very exciting.

JS:
And that stranger was your dad?

SB:
Yes, and all of the sudden, we’re traveling with the dog and his girlfriend and going to Martinique.

JS:
Did you guys have a good relationship growing up? When he came to pick you up then you stayed with him for the rest of the time?

SB:
No, he was working a lot so I didn’t see him that much. But sometimes I’d go to the studio, and it was like the playground, you know. He would put all the money he made from Charles Jourdan advertising into creating stuff for Vogue, you know, never charging them. Just about the work, and he had the team, and always working with the same people. So, he built relationships, working — it was very exciting. They built sets and came up with all these ideas, and the models actually were involved in the process, you know. My dad was the director. The studio was in the Jewish quarter, which at the time was kind of depressed, and nobody wanted to live there. But there was like a very famous deli around the corner, called Joe Goldenberg — it stayed opened late, so they would go. It was very exciting times.

JS:
And did you realize that your dad was doing something different…or he was just your dad?

SB:
Yeah. Exactly. I didn’t know about fashion, for example. We never went to fashion shows. And our clothes were being made by his girlfriend. And we never talked about fashion. And he never hung out with trendy people or cared about celebrity.

JS:
So, as you got older, did it dawn on you that your dad was a famous photographer?

SB:
Not really, especially as we lived like bohemians.

JS:
Your dad didn’t care about money.

SB:
No. Unfortunately for him. He was raised by his grandmother, and actually lived in poverty. So he grew up not having money. He wasn’t making a lot of money with Vogue, and the Charles Jourdan money would go into supporting his Vogue shoots. When he did have money he would buy everybody champagne and dinner. So, if he had a little bit of money, he always wanted to not have money, because that’s your normal way of being. You know what I mean?

JS:
Yes he was used to that way of living. And so, when he worked for Vogue, he didn’t have a contract?

SB:
No, I don’t think he had a contract.

JS:
But he had amazing creative freedom to do whatever he wanted, and the same with his work for Charles Jourdan.

SB:
Yes, Roland Jourdan, you know, who took over Charles Jourdan, he gave my father carte blanche. It had an impact. I like the attitude of Charles Jourdan giving carte blanche. So, there was no art director, nobody. He just did his stuff. He had more time. And it’s more work than editorial, because he could think more, and it was more exciting.

JS:
It was ground-breaking. Like I said, it was the first work of your fathers that I saw, and to see an ad that had so much artistic integrity to it was unusual at that time. It was advertising shoes but you had to look hard to actually she the shoes in some of the photos.. And your dad also, before that, he was painting.

Copyright The Guy Bourdin Estate 2019 / Courtesy of Justin Strauss

SB:
Yeah. So he started doing ink drawings. They’re very meticulous. So it started like that. You know, and then he started painting. Because after you have that all the attention to detail. And also if you draw, or you paint, it’s different than some fashion photographer now.  Because if you paint every detail, it has to be a thought, every brush stroke is a choice, you know what I mean?

JS:
Of course.

SB:
So, it changes the whole universe of how you approach the image.

JS:
He would actually, before some of his photo shoots, do a painting of how he envisioned the photograph to look.

SB:
Exactly, or do a drawing. But it changes the way you approach the subject, I think. So, that’s why, it’s kind of like a UFO, it’s like it’s from a different world. I’m not saying the other guys are bad, but Bourdin just looks like it comes from a different planet.

JS:
Every issue of French Vogue, from the 60s, 70s and 80s, there were pages of Guy Bourdin and pages of Helmut Newton’s work pushing the bounds of fashion photography. It was very exciting to get an issue and see what surprises were in store.

SB:
Exactly.

Copyright The Guy Bourdin Estate 2019 / Courtesy of Louise Alexander Gallery

JS:
Were they friends?

SB:
No. It didn’t happen. They came from very different backgrounds . Helmut grew up upper-class and well-educated. My father was just poor, you know. So, he never had that kind of upper-class drive that Helmut was born with, and actually it served him very well.

JS:
I think the different perspectives and life experiences is all part of what made them both so interesting. Which translated over to their respective work.

SB:
The building where I grew up was on Pelican Street. It’s not too far from the Palais Royale. The building is from 1792, or something. But, anyway, it used to be the Red Light District, you know, with the ladies, so, our building actually was built by an entrepreneur as a whorehouse. Very old, with a spiraling staircase all made out of wood and plaster. Six floors high. We lived on the top and  and every floor was just a bunch of little rooms. But people got scared when they saw the building on Pelican Street. It felt like a boat. You know, it seemed like he always picked these weird places. It’s hard to go climb, like six floors. I wish he had been more bourgeois.

JS:
And where was the studio?

SB:
The studio was in what was then the Jewish quarter and it was beautiful. It was my father’s cinecittà. A world of magic. And everyone was involved in the dream. He made the models superstars. They were involved in the process. And they loved it. Dayle Haddon and Nicolle Meyer felt involved and respected. There was a mission. Which went beyond making an editorial. He transcended not only the accepted notions of what  “selling” a product was. But also how images were being created. For their own sake, and they still exist. For a reason.

JS:
So, he’s a world-famous photographer in the 1970s. Having his work in every issue of French Vogue, as well as in the other editions and other magazines. Shooting the Charles Jourdan shoe advertising campaigns. But he seemed to be a pretty elusive figure. Shying away from the spotlight. He did the now legendary “Sighs And Whispers” lingerie catalog for Bloomingdale’s in the 70s which caused quite a stir when it showed up in people’s mailboxes. I remember getting the mail, because my mom shopped at Bloomingdale’s, and I was ecstatic. It really pushed the envelope at the time and caused a bit of controversy.

SB:
There’s some pictures… I thought they were upset, Bloomingdale’s, about the catalog. I don’t know. For a time he was afraid to work for the U.S. And he would never cash in the payments. Because once he cashed the check they become the copyright holders of the photos in the U.S. So he would not cash them, because then he would lose his copyright.

JS:
Your dad was very possessive over his work.

SB:
Yes. You know. He would try to help them make the right choice by not giving them a choice. He didn’t want to give people choices.

JS:
It’s pretty unique, at the time, to have that kind of control. Was he considered difficult to work with?

SB:
I don’t think so. He always did the work. There wouldn’t be anybody there from the magazine. There was no art director who’s gonna ruin the project, for example. For eternity.

JS:
They just sent him the clothes, and waited for the results.

SB:
Yes, he had the Vogue stylists. He knew them. He always liked to work with people he knew. I don’t think he was difficult to work with. I never heard him argue with anybody for their magazine.

JS:
How old were you when your dad passed away?

SB:
I think I was 24.

JS:
What was your relationship with him at that time?

SB:
Well, I lived in Chicago. I was an artist in Chicago. So, he kind of disappeared, actually. He was sick. But he wouldn’t even tell me. And, for example, when I was living in Chicago. It’s 1991. You don’t have Internet. You don’t have cell phone so one day I get a call from our family lawyer, I don’t even know how she got my number. She called me and said, “Your dad’s sick. Let me call you back.” And then one day she called me and said, “No, you’ve got to come.” So I packed a little carry-on and left. But I never knew he was getting operated.

He had all the strips of the films, so he could see the scene. You know? Because one image is a series of events. One out of twenty-four. One second, twenty-four images.

JS:
There are some stories about your dad that he never saved his work and that much was destroyed and that he never wanted to publish a book of his work while he was still alive?

SB:
That’s what happens. No, he wanted a book. That’s just a myth. He was working on a book at the time with a very famous publisher, Schirmer/Mosel. But it was a different time and things got a bit shady and he got scared. Well, it’s like the photographer Paolo Roversi. You know Paolo?

JS:
Yes.

SB:
It took him forever to make a book, and when he made a book, it’s like you open the pages and they’re hidden. Each page is hidden, so you have to reopen the page to see the image. So, he’s hiding. Because, my father’s pictures, they go from the magazine, to the book, to the wall. How many people can make that transition?

JS:
That’s why I was obsessed with the magazines because there was no other way to see his work. That was his work. You would get an issue of a magazine, and you would have a little book.

SB:
Oh, yes. So he had this idea. He wanted to have a book that would be printed on newspaper paper. And, you know when you go to the cashier at the supermarket you have American Vogue on the rack right next to the cash register, that’s what he wanted. He wanted like a book printed on newspaper paper, right there for mass distribution. So, you know how they say he threw everything away. Everything. But actually he kept everything. When we moved from that Pelican apartment, he put all the stuff in a family house that was in that movie by Agnès Varda, I don’t know if you’ve seen it. Faces Places.

JS:
So that house is in the movie?

SB:
Yeah, that house. Because she knew him, you know So, when he died I went back to the house in Normandy. I could barely open the door. There’s no electricity. The water is not working. And he had  boxes everywhere. So, I would open a box and there would be… I remember, on top of our fridge, there’d be some kind of basket and maybe a pen cap and some homeopathic medicine, some unopened mail, the French government and he would just take the basket, put it in a box. They were like time capsules, you know? He kept everything!

JS:
Where are all his works kept now?

SB:
They’re everywhere. There’s some in New York. Some in France. One day you come to Paris, you can look around the crates.

JS:
I would love that. Your dad also did record covers. For Boz Scaggs and a few others. But he was very into music, as well?

SB:
Oh, yeah. You know he loved America. He liked James Brown. A lot of stuff like that…he would just play the music.

Copyright The Guy Bourdin Estate 2019 / Courtesy of Louise Alexander Gallery

JS:
I always felt his work had a very Alfred Hitchcock quality to them.

SB:
Exactly. You know the picture of the wall outlet with the blood coming out? It’s very Hitchcock. I can hear the shower scene, you know? And because the blood is oozing, you know. But when you have the thing, where you can feel the tension and the suspense.

JS:
It was quite shocking at the time.

SB:
It’s oozing, you know. It’s coming out. But like two tears. It’s not like a puddle.

JS:
Your dad’s photos always had a cinematic quality to them.

Copyright The Guy Bourdin Estate 2019 / Courtesy of Louise Alexander Gallery

SB:
It’s influences, yeah? We have the book list of his books. It’s like, he’ll buy comic books. He’d look at Weegee pictures. He’d look at science fiction films. He’ll look at master paintings. He knew all the museums. He would go to the Louvre and look at the brush strokes. So, it was just culture. It could be pop culture because he loved America. It could be James Brown. Could be Weegee. It could be Erich von Stroheim. He had all the strips of the films, so he could see the scene. You know? Because one image is a series of events. One out of twenty-four. One second, twenty-four images. So, he was really into that movement. What’s gonna happen? Like, the blood coming out of the plug. Or me walking down the hall in that ad. I remember he just put a blue screen on the TV. Woman’s lying down. Always highlighting a shoe. And he would say, “Walk down the hall.” And if you looked, there’s the randomness of the woman on the screen, and me. And there’s always that tension. And there’s the door frame, but I’m like the door is here. And imagine if I’d been here? It’s no good. If I’m here there’s no tension. So, I don’t know because he would set up something… I forgot who said he would catch the moment. So he would set it up, but there would be a moment somehow that would just make it all come to realization.

JS:
I’ve heard stories that he would go to great lengths to get some of these shots that he would do. Like, dye the ocean bluer than it was.

SB:
Well, also when you’re a painter it’s about color, yeah?

JS:
He did amazing black and white work.

SB:
Half of his work is black and white, but Vogue threw all the black and white slides in the garbage. About 1,500 slides. So, I didn’t have access to black and white and then I just sued them for six years to get the working plates where they would do the montage to reproduce to put in the magazine. But he could play with black and white and color at the same time. You know I have a story about black and white. After my step mother died, we kind of lived like bohemians, and my father said, “We don’t watch TV in color.” So, he would buy secondhand TVs, you know with the buttons, like three button to turn the dial. And we had a black and white TV. And we’d watch all the movies in black and white. And then they would break. Because they were old, and so he’d buy another one.

JS:
And he’d keep the broken TVs?

SB:
Yes, and then there were just five hundred TVs in the house. And we’d just watch black and white. He’d say no, no, we have to watch in black and white. So, he was also very skillful at black and white.

JS:
Yeah, he was super versatile.

SB:
Yeah, at the same time. He’d always be buying the new equipment. So, like an easel, he’d give me the little Kodak one, and then he bought a Polaroid camera where you could instantly have the cartridge. He’s always be buying the new stuff.

JS:
How do you think your dad would adapt to what’s going on with the technology today as far as Photoshop?

SB:
I think he’d do the opposite.

JS:
He wouldn’t be okay with it?

SB:
He’d probably work with a big camera. Just to suffer. And get two pictures in twelve hours. He was creating universes on the spot, yeah? You know that picture of the plane? There’s like a Cadillac and there’s a woman’s shoes, and the plane is like also the tension. That tension. It’s just right there. He had a problem with not having a deadline. And then he was a perfectionist. So, if he started painting, he wanted the surface to be super smooth, like glass. So then he would paint and when he’s kind of done he would just take a sponge with water. It was oil painting. And he’d wet the canvas and take a razor blade and start scraping it to make it super smooth. So, in the past, there was no paint, so he’d have to repaint on top. So, the finished paintings, they’re beautiful. But the good thing about magazines was, you had a deadline, you had a team, you had the money. You’re with people and you just have to get it done. So, it was kind of like, you know like a boxer training. There’s the match. The painting. But there’s the training, you know? Which is going to feed your imagination and your strength and you learn your moves. So, that was his practice. The fashion photography. But he always wanted to be a painter. So, it’s kind of like a combination of things. But we have them all.     

JS:
You’re keeping his legacy alive, and that’s a beautiful thing, because to me, his work was very influential. His work spoke to me and music came out of that inspiration. It’s not just music that inspires me. It’s many things.

Copyright The Guy Bourdin Estate 2019 / Courtesy of Louise Alexander Gallery

SB:
It’s not even about me. It’s about my father. But, if I could convey — the reality of the person, you know I love my dad, so he could be inspired by a master painter or James Brown, or he brought back posters of — I still have one — you know in the super markets when they promote cuts of meats? Like products? I have one.

JS:
Andy Warhol found the artistry in those.

SB:
(Looking at the phone recorder) Shoot, you didn’t press record!

JS:
No, I did.

SB:
I was reading about Andy Warhol and he was filming, and some guy said, “Well, Andy, there’s no film in the thing…” and he’s like, “Oh, it doesn’t matter!”