cultural lens

So Somerset House: cultural beacon, Courtauld institute and home to the the twinkliest Tiffany blue ice rink in town. My intention was ‘Guy Bourdin’ being a Francophile kind of girl, but I got sidetracked  by Blondie, those neon window strips spoke to me from across the courtyard and in I went.

IMG_2371Previously I didn’t really see myself as a punk spirit, so it just proves it’s best to walk through open doors (and keep an eye peeled for glowing satyrs).  I LOVED IT. Chris Stein and Debbie Harry kicked down closed doors and  streamed ‘Punk’  into counter-culture being: belting out the sound track and re-seaming fashion in their own style.

christ stein with blondie turning headsTurning heads, fresh into town and oozing a new kind of cool. Debbie’s extraordinary looks were turned into cult status by Chris, in the exhibition intro she describes him as a Voyeur and Iconoclast, while he says he’s always been a fan of decay of dissolution: who could ask for more in the punk photographer?

IMG_237540 years on,  the music’s pumping, rooms are stage lit and the pictures tell a story, in fact they capture a time when counter culture really did exist,  a gritty youthful response,  full of energy and somehow innocence, to the long 70’s decline and depression.  Debbie rocks these pictures intimate and honest through her best friend’s lens, captured by his fizz of brains pulsing to society’s beat: analysing it, dissecting it and framing it.chris stein blondie

chris stein blondie 3

ChrisStein Blondie 6

chris stein blondie 2Each image has his accompanying story or anecdote, my favourite is Debbie in (so rumour has it) Marilyn Monroe’s dress ‘stage cooking’ after they burnt out their kitchen.  Did they have fun or what?

Chris Stein and the burnt  kitchen BlondieAll of which made Guy’s exhibition slightly more shocking.  Turns out I had actually seen Guy’s work a lot, it had fascinated me and disturbed me as a child in the 70’s.  Those lone boots, the lost legs, the surreal shoe:  those Charles Jourdan adverts.

guy_bourdin_charles_jourdan11complete with phallic mantlepiece display

guy bourdin charles jourdanready for the off (cut)

Guy Bourdin charles jourdan maidOr complete with human forms in contradictory and sexual poses. All in hi-gloss and saturated colour.

I couldn’t work them out, they were both culturally and intellectually inexplicable to a small girl.  Now though, hmmm, I get it.  Guy trained under surrealist Man Ray in 30’s Paris, he was also a provocateur and a rule breaker, challenging the idea that fashion images needed to be attractive he made images that attracted your attention, literally stop you.

IMG_2388 IMG_2382 IMG_2380 IMG_2376 IMG_2377Guy was an artist and image maker, his notebooks in the exhibition jostle, brimful with ideas and compositions, he planned his photograph down to the camera angle and light position.  Another voyeur and iconoclast but this time it’s darker and rather than celebrating it’s subject objectifies them.


Guy Bourdin shoesBoth exhibitions celebrate the power of photography, image-making and our evolving cultural identity.  It was on the way home that I read Chris Stein’s intro: I see the same Jean Cocteau quote everywhere, that ‘film will only become art when its materials are as inexpensive as pencil and paper… we may now with the Internet, have gotten to the ‘when’ that he refers to…photography is of the masses.   

IMG_2372Albeit few of us grace the walls of Somerset House.

There’s one hundred and fifty million plus of us using instagram, the photographic lens has expanded to include us all, we can hashtag intimacy *WIDN, stage shots *flatlay, collage, montage, distil, edit and hashtag at will.  Via instagram and the internet we are all connected, streaming away, but in each era there are stand out artists that define us and their time culturally.


The book Chris Stein/Negative: Me, Blondie and the advent of Punk is available.

All images from Chris Stein, Guy Bourdin and Somerest House.

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