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A Message For You : Guy Bourdin and his Muse

Guy Bourdin

Nicolle Meyer

The relationship between model and photographer; maestro and muse can be taxing, tumultuous, thrilling. Nicolle Meyer, captured the creative imagination of Guy Bourdin in 1977 and for 3-and-a-half electric years, as model and collaborator, created some of the artist’s most iconic images. In conversation with Re-SEE, she remembers his artistic genius and her role in transporting his legacy to future generations.

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How did the book project ‘Message for You’ come about?

Samuel Bourdin reached out to me in 2000 when he was working on a book on his late father, ‘Exhibit A’. He wanted to use one of my images for the cover - the photograph Guy created for Pentax with me lying facedown on the floor with blood coming out of my mouth. Later, curator Shelly Verthime was preparing the first Guy Bourdin retrospective at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and Samuel connected us via email. Through our extensive correspondence, Shelly and I became great friends united by our shared love of Bourdin’s images. We finally met on the Opening Night of the exhibition in London where she said ‘ I don’t know if you realise this but you and Guy created an amazing body of work together - so many of the iconic images were shot with you.’ Through this discussion we thought: ‘why don’t we do a book on my body of work accompanied by a first-hand account of working with Guy?’ We wanted to do something more than just another ‘model-book’, something museal, with weight and care. We worked closely together selecting the images and bringing together with my text a personal and visual voyage through Guy’s image making.

How did you come up with the title of the book?

Shelly, Samuel and I were going through the archives in New York, thinking of what to call it and all of sudden Shelly pulls out a photo of an ad we did for Charles Jourdan taken at the Fontainebleau in Miami. In those days you would get a message from the hotel front-desk placed in envelope with a cellophane window and on it a text saying ‘ A message for you’. Guy had slipped into one of these envelopes a photo of me squatting - all you saw through the cellophane window was my legs with the text above. Shelly pulls out this image and we were like “that is it, that is the title”. The title is very fitting because it is the first written introduction to his work not by an art historian but instead drawn from my experiences of working with him.

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How did you meet?

I was 17. I was living in Paris with my family and used to be a dancer. I had started doing a few fashion shows in Japan based around dance. The woman who organised these shows said that I should really do Editorial and so when I returned to Paris I signed up with a little modelling agency. This agency sent me to see Guy on a Go-see, like the ones that all models do. He was very gentle, very sweet. I didn’t have much to show – just one or two test shots. He also asked to see my Identity Card which I later discovered was to check my star sign! I am a Leo, and he was a Sagittarius – both fire signs. I got a call about a Vogue Editorial at the end of that week and our 3.5 year working collaboration began.

What was your first photo shoot like?

My first shots were for Vogue and were all shot in his studio. I was simultaneously excited and relatively disappointed because my head had been cropped out of most. Entering his studio was like entering a factory of ideas – I really loved it. He worked with a very small team - make-up artist, Heidi Morawetz and hair-stylist Valentin.

Guy would be present at every stage armed with his notebook. The studio shoots were never spontaneous and always perfectly planned, but he valued improvisation and spontaneity. We were always trying out new and different things.

The production team would have been working on the set for days before we arrived. For one shoot they built a gigantic shoe-box – so big I could live in it - with huge reams of silk paper. Often the shoots took days and they were full, long days.

Sometimes I would have to hold a position for a long time too. Do you remember the image of three models piled on top of each other to resemble a caterpillar? Insect-legs wearing Charles Jordan shoes? This was really not easy to actualise. He had tried the idea before with other models but it had not worked. He revised the concept and re-shot it with us using ironing boards protruding from the wall. The team lifted us up until we were suspended on the boards, perching for ages. You had to be really physically fit. He was constantly putting us to the test. This is ultimately the reason we worked so well together: I thrived on the challenge and liked the difficulty.

This rigour brought a lot more to the image and for me, subconsciously perhaps, I knew I was creating a work of art. My parents were fine art dealers and so somehow I related to what he was doing. I didn’t have any barriers or boundaries and - although the shoots were never vulgar or racy - nothing shocked me. I thought it was all for Art…

Why do you think Bourdin’s images are so highly referenced?

His voice is completely unique and his images whilst from a particular time are in fact timeless. Timelessness is linked to telling a story. His photographs have many layers creating a narrative or clues to a narrative - and this commands your attention as a viewer. There was never just a great looking girl in a great looking dress. Fashion was never the focal point of Guy’s images. The saturated colors, shock elements, dreamlike sequences and surreal scenarios coalesce, and I think this is what gives a very long life to the image - like looking at a great painting.

What is your favourite Shot ?

Some of my best shots are without my head! But, my favourite image is the one that Samuel gave me to thank me for all my help - the Pentax ad with the toy elephant. The pink quilted bed cover and my bottom sticking out from under the bed. You can’t tell it’s me, but the image is iconic and immediately grabs your attention.

Through the years with Guy, what is your best memory?

It is hard to say because working with Guy was like a film: image next to image, story next to story - I couldn't wait to see what would come next. But, the shoot we did at Karl Lagerfeld's Chateau for VOGUE in 1978 stands out. I was essentially in character for five days. The Chateau was very romantic and surreal. White ticking and ornamentation everywhere, Pachelbel playing in the background, and Karl floating in and out. We created the image where I’m tied up to a pole and blood is dripping down from my nipples. Saint Sebastian meets Barry Lyndon. One night we promenaded with torches through the forest – it was totally magical! I also cannot forget the two-month road-trip we took through America. It was just Guy, myself and a tiny team - quite incredible. Maxi, another model joined us in Miami, we had all these bathing suits to shoot. Guy was very much enamored with America and this is clear when you look at the images we shot there. We made the image of me squatting in a bathing suit holding a polaroid image of me squatting in a bathing suit on a Miami flyover bridge, for example. This is where he started the Polaroid series, an image within an image. It was a memorable trip.

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