An image from Guy Bourdin's Charles Jourdan footwear campaign from 1979
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Death becomes her: the sinister glamour of Guy Bourdin

Did Bourdin really cause a 20-year-old model to pass out when he covered her entire body with glue and pearls?

Guy Bourdin: Image Maker
Somerset House, London WC2

“Four people are sitting around a table, talking about baseball,” intoned Alfred Hitchcock at an American Film Institute seminar in 1970, describing an imaginary movie. “Suddenly a bomb goes off, blows the people to smithereens. What do the audience have? Ten seconds of shock.” But that would be “wasted footage”: far better, he said, to torment the viewer. “Take the same scene and tell the audience there’s a bomb under the table and it will go off in five minutes . . . Now the conversation about baseball becomes very vital.”

A Hitchcockian sensibility pervades the Guy Bourdin retrospective at Somerset House. Though the French fashion photographer’s domain was the pages of monthly magazines rather than the cinema screen, filmic suggestions of intrigue saturate his images of sex, death and danger. A boy stands in the shadows of a hotel room while to his left is a glowing TV set. Light falls on a pair of pink shoes at the foot of a bed; in those shoes is a woman, almost naked, her head cropped out entirely. It’s a deathly scene. It’s also a shoe advert for Charles Jourdan, shot in the spring of 1975.

Bourdin was the product of a Europe in upheaval. Born in Paris in 1928, he met the surrealist photographer Man Ray at the age of 22 and quickly became his protégé. After two years working as an artist, he struck up a relationship with Vogue Paris, which regularly published his photographs until 1987. Perhaps more than any of his contemporaries, Bourdin shaped our conception of glamour, introducing overt sexuality and suspense into what had previously been a decorative, flatly commercial discipline. He did so without ever truly abandoning his surrealist commitment to the conflicting impulses that our conscious minds clothe in the couture of civilisation. His work, like Man Ray’s, is emotive – yet exactly what it is that we feel remains ambiguous.

Bourdin revelled in such ambiguities in both his life and his art. He rarely gave interviews, seemingly happy to let rumour and speculation flourish. Did he really scavenge a dead bird from his garden and place it at a model’s feet, taking photographs of her as she cried? And did he cause a 20-year-old model to pass out when he covered her entire body with glue and pearls? Stories of a perfectionism that often bordered on cruelty adorn accounts of his working practices like baubles of fashion excess – but the work itself couldn’t be further from Zoolander-ish silliness. A seriousness of intent is apparent in each of his images, reinforced by this exhibition’s displays of his test Polaroids, meticulously cropped with black tape to reveal the most effective compositions within already fascinating scenes.

In a photograph from the 1970s, a female form is glimpsed through a doorway, her face obscured and her body contorted. Our eyes fall on her bra, then notice a man’s hand outside the room, pressing a light switch. The door is only partly ajar and the camera is positioned above head height; we peer at the tableau voyeuristically. But there is no resolution to the narrative. There’s no sex here, only the suggestion of it, and if the model’s outstretched position connotes some act of violence, it is merely implied. Yet we’re given enough information to feel compelled: the hand, the sordid-looking room, the faces hidden from view.

Part of what makes Bourdin’s work feel so glamorous despite the horror of many of his images is his fetishistic attention to detail. Our modern use of the word “glamour” carries with it an echo of its earlier connotations of magic and “delusive charm”, as the social historian Carol Dyhouse once put it. The world of glamour is one of fantasy and plays of light; it offers us a fiction of endless possibility that owes little subservience to rationality or natural laws. Fantasy, however, is more potent when grounded in relatable terms and Bourdin’s use of cinematic shorthand was just one strategy he employed: he also fixated on real-world clothes and accessories, amplifying their power to near-totemic heights. One Charles Jourdan commission enacts this sense of enlargement literally, showing a giant yellow shoe among ordinary-sized pairs.

At times, Bourdin’s camera seems to pursue textures for their sensual potency as an end in itself: in a 1970 Vogue shoot, the shiny beads that cover the face of a model compete for attention with the necklace she wears. It’s arguable that this celebration of materiality is an inadequate excuse for, say, his 1980 Pentax calendar image in which blood streams from a naked woman’s mouth – but the same dazzling control is present there and its affective quality is undeniable.

Bourdin’s seeming delight in female subjection may prove too unpalatable for some. Yet to dismiss his work for that alone is to misunderstand fashion – and art – as a sphere of didacticism. Bourdin was a manipulator of dreams. Condemning him for appealing to the extremities of our senses would be as puritanical as feeling ashamed of the darker contents of our own nightmares. Pasolini once said, “To scandalise is a right; to be scandalised, a pleasure.” At Somerset House, the pleasure was all mine.

Until 15 March 2015

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

This article first appeared in the 09 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, How Isis hijacked the revolution

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The cult of clean eating in a fast-food nation

In Britain, it used to be vulgar to comment on one’s food. Now, it’s a bit weird not to.

These are the top food trends that the British media predicted for 2016: seaweed, parsnip puddings and sprouted seeds. And yet what was the most popular recipe on BBC Good Food, the country’s biggest cooking site? Lemon drizzle cake. When it comes to the food that we eat, the gulf between fantasy and fact has never been wider.

A third of British children are overweight, yet from the pictures tagged as “kids’ food” on the photo-sharing platform Instagram you would think they lived on pumpkin muffins and raw breakfast cereal. The same site boasts 290,229 posts on #avocadotoast and a mere 7,219 for #baconbutty, but I would bet my best spiraliser that we eat more of the latter.

Food trends have always been the preserve of those wealthy enough to enjoy the luxury of choice. If social media had been around in the 18th century, the exotic pineapple would have been trending heavily even as the majority of Britons subsisted on bread and gruel. Yet rarely have these fads been so hard to ignore: right now, we are a society obsessed with our stomachs . . . or, at least, our eyes, given that these seem to do much of the consuming.

The average British adult spends five hours a week watching, reading about, browsing and posting about food – and just four cooking it. A record 14.8 million of us tuned in to the final of The Great British Bake Off – almost as many as saw England’s dismal performance against Iceland in last year’s Euros – yet the most commonly eaten meal in the UK is a sandwich. That conjures a depressing image of each one of us sitting in front of a screen, scrolling through endless pictures of kale smoothies and activated quinoa as we tuck in to a floppy BLT.

A nation in which it was once considered vulgar to comment on one’s food has turned into one where it’s a bit weird not to. The current feverish interest in all things culinary feels, I imagine, like the Sixties must have done after Britain discovered sex “Between the end of the Chatterley ban/And the Beatles’ first LP”. And as with the sexual revolution and its fantasies of free love and cosmic joy through tantric chanting, perhaps the idea is more popular than the reality: increasingly, this endless parade of recipes cooked and meals eaten seems to be about more than the food itself.

While sex has (largely) thrown off its ancient shackles of judgement and shame, our diets are increasingly becoming their own morality tale. Once upon a time, “bad food” meant adulterated food – cheese dyed using lead, bread bleached with chalk – or perhaps cruel food, such as battery-farmed eggs. Occasionally someone who seemed to take too much pleasure in their meals might feel the weight of the country’s Protestant past, but wholesome food was generally seen as good rather than sinful.

Social media can’t be wholly to blame for the demonising of simple nourishment in the 21st century. Writing in the Observer last year, the philosopher Julian Baggini cited Salman Rushdie’s “naughty but nice” cream-cake advertising slogan from the Seventies as an early example; but “wicked” food was once a largely playful concept. Now, it is hard to find the humour in the modern idea of clean eating or, indeed, in its “dirty” dark side.

Clean eating, if you’ve been lucky enough to have avoided the torrent of smoothie bowls and bone broths pouring forth from screen, billboard and printed page in recent years, is a way of life (most adherents reject the word “diet”) with many rules – the Hemsley sisters’ “simple, mindful and intuitive” approach for “a long-term lifestyle change” takes up six pages of their bestselling recipe book Good + Simple. But there is little consensus among its advocates as to what these rules are.

Although clean eating is often described merely as a movement that champions minimally processed, “natural” foods, one of the few things that unites its various congregations is the need to eliminate what they deem to be unclean alternatives. Gluten is a popular target for dismissal, because it can be “hard to digest”; legumes are sometimes blamed for “bloating”. Cane sugar is definitely out, but consumption of dates and honey is actively encouraged, often served with a generous spoonful of coconut oil or nut butter (but not peanut butter, because that “gives you cancer”).

Given the often spurious scientific grounds for these strictures (tomatoes are said to cause inflammation; dairy steals the calcium from your bones), it’s little wonder that clean eating stands accused of promoting what the food writer Bee Wilson described recently as a “twisted attitude to food”, valuing certain ingredients as pure and cleansing, while others come with an unwanted side order of guilt and anxiety.

The backlash wasn’t long in coming – and on social media, the crucible of the eat-clean craze, nothing is served in moderation. “Dirty” food, which revels in its own naughtiness, is the inevitable flip side of the clean-eating coin, a world where adherents compete to outdo each other in crimes against cookery. Online audiences encourage such extremes; they like their food, to misquote Longfellow, either very, very good or horrid. In short, a simple spag bol is never going to get as much attention on Twitter as an “Italian-style” beefburger, dripping with Bolognese sauce, drenched in Parmesan, and served between two slabs of deep-fried pasta (this does exist).

Such fantastical foods are fine online; as with pornography, the problem comes when they influence the way people eat in real life. Bee Wilson, who was subjected to a barrage of online abuse when she dared to question the thinking behind one clean-eating guru’s “philosophy” at last year’s Cheltenham Literary Festival, cites growing evidence of the dangers of clean eating from those working with people who suffers from eating disorders. One specialist in London told the Sunday Times in May that between 80 and 90 per cent of his patients were following so-called clean diets.

At the other end of the spectrum, an ­Oxford University study published last year in the journal Brain and Cognition explored the possibility that “exposure to images of desirable foods can trigger inhibitory cognitive processes such as self-restraint”. The researchers concluded that our brain has to make a great effort to resist temptation when looking at “food porn”, in order to “maintain a reasonably healthy weight”. And not everyone succeeds.

It remains to be seen whether this appetite for public displays of ingestion endures. I can’t imagine the world needs any more pictures of fried eggs but others disagree: 264 have been added to Instagram in the time it has taken me to write this piece.

Technology will decide – work is already under way on virtual-reality headsets that allow diners to eat one food while looking at an image of another. This is a significant development, as evidence suggests that changing the appearance of food can affect our perception of its taste and flavour.

It is possible to imagine, in the not-too-distant future, chowing down on a plate of steamed fish while gazing lasciviously at a bacon cheeseburger. Or we could just learn the old-fashioned art of moderation. Is there a hashtag for that?

Felicity Cloake writes the New Statesman’s food column

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times