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 sub-editor of 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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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser