Guy Bourdin: Unseen

Fashion muse Nicolle Meyer, who worked intensely with Bourdin for three years, is here to spread the photographer's message for his new exhibition at the Wapping Project.

Text by Susie Bubble Photography by Morgan O'Donovan

Everyone is pondering how a model becomes a fashion muse, prompted by the mass of attention on the ‘Model as Muse’ exhibition which has just opened at the Met in New York. The fashion muse at work is more than just a supermodel wearing a designers’ togs and being a brand ambassador. Muses like Nicolle Meyer who worked intensely with Guy Bourdin beween 1977 and 1980 listen, comply and thus earn the respect of a visionary photographer. The notoriously difficult Bourdin was known to be very demanding with his models and Meyer was a fresh-faced 17 year old who gave Bourdin the freedom to push the boundaries because she was didn’t put up a fight. Since her working experience with Bourdin, she has gone on to write ‘Bourdin: Message for You’ and is happy to be in her own words “a Guy Bourdin ambassador, spreading the images”. So that mission brings Meyer here to London to open “Unseen Guy Bourdin”, an exhibition of 32 images (some never seen by the public before) at The Wapping Project. She reminisces with Susie Bubble over working with Bourdin.

Describe your first encounter with Bourdin?
Nicolle Meyer: I was a very young girl. I really hadn't started my modelling career yet. I went to see Guy Bourdin, not knowing who he was. He was very sweet, very gentle. He asked to see my ID card and sjdde .h that week I was booked for Vogue. Working with him from the beginning, he was kind of testing me to see how I would react. In some of the shoots I couldn't really use in my book, because you couldn't see my head and you would just see an arm or a leg or I'd be doused in water. As soon as he saw that I was really enjoying working with him and didn't put up any resistance, I slowly became unveiled in the shots.

What was it about you that attracted you to Bourdin do you think, for him to work with you so consistently for three years?
Nicolle Meyer: It is considered a long time! I think one of the several factors, in the beginning, when he first saw me, I stood for the kind of woman he was looking for - a kind of child woman. The other thing was that he saw that I was very willing. You couldn't be complicated if you worked for him. You needed to be open to every suggestion. I was never fazed by anything he asked me to do. If I had to hang with my back dangling on a beam suspended from a wall for an hour, I wouldn't put up a fight. I kind of liked doing all this work even if it was difficult. That led to a good relationship and he felt free with me to try out whatever he wanted.

Did you ever mind that your face was obscured for the most part and that you weren’t the main focus in the shot?
Nicolle Meyer: I didn't mind at all. When I was doing the shoot I wasn't aware how they were going to be cropped or turn out. We did a lot of studio work in the Marais, Paris. I just loved going there. You knocked on the door and stepped into another world. He locked the doors and you were in Guy's environment and it was very theatrical. There were sets being built and you spent a long time in make-up. I kind of liked the whole process. I was also very fascinated by his creativity to finding a solution to doing a certain image because it was pre-digital. His shots were not really straightforward shots. They involved a lot of technical aspects. There's one where I'm leaning back with the chair also tipped back too. It's a simple idea that's very surreal and there's no way you could have done it in a simple way.

Were there any moments where you did question his processes?
Nicolle Meyer: We did a lot of nudes together and it could easily have been a situation where the guy was lecherous or it was awkward or it could have gone over into the vulgar side. I felt very much at ease with him. I always think there was something very paternal about it which sounds very odd given I did some very odd photos with him that I wouldn't do with my dad! There was something very protective about him. I didn't see that side that he's actually quite was known for, that he pushed his models to the brink and was incredibly difficult to work with. He probably wasn’t like that with me because there was no need.

What would you say is your most memorable experience of working with Bourdin?
Nicolle Meyer: The whole experience of working with him is kind of like a collage that makes one whole Guy memory. If I tried to break it down, the one I loved the most because it was so stunning, and was like being in a film, was the one where we went to Karl Lagerfeld's chateau outside Paris. It was for French Vogue and I'm tied to a stake like Saint Sebastien or Christ, stripped to my nipples with blood running down. I was with another model Audrey who was kneeling down.
It was so amazing how he would stand back and it was like he was painting a painting, tweaking certain things and getting it just right for the shot. That memory is very strong just because it was so visual.

What do you think makes Bourdin's work still relevant today?
Nicolle Meyer: There's such amazing narrative and real beauty to his images. Those things are timeless for me. He was a master in technique but he was also very painterly. The images stand on their own and continue to intrigue people. I see the inspiration he has on other photographers and artists. If you look at fashion magazines today, I don't want to say people plagiarise, but you see Guy's influences very strongly.

“Unseen Guy Bourdin” at The Wapping Project open from 9th May until 4th July.

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