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Surveying the Season's Most Extravagant Photo Books

Beginning in 1955, Guy Bourdin (1928-91) worked primarily at French Vogue, where his startlingly erotic, chillingly misogynistic images made Helmut Newton, who shared those same editorial pages, look like a purring pussycat. But Bourdin was just the sort of cruel, fearless provocateur the rag biz needed, and his '60s and '70s photographs are among the most memorable and influential images produced in or out of fashion during those decades. Because Bourdin never permitted a book to be published during his lifetime, and his estate has been tied up in litigation ever since, Exhibit A (Bulfinch, $75) is the first collection of his work. Appropriately, it's not a pretty sight. The cover—a heavily roughed nude sprawled on a white floor, a glossy torrent of "blood" pouring from her mouth—sets the macabre mood. Like the surrealists, Bourdin toyed with sex, death, and bizarre incongruities, but his determination to shock the bourgeoisie looks terribly dated these days, and his audaciousness is fatally tainted by his nastiness. Yet Exhibit A is one of the year's most important books of fashion photography. Not only does it bring Bourdin's fuck-you originality back into print, but it clearly lays out the source material for the slew of derivative work done in the years since he faded from the scene.

Sex and death are served muy caliente in Ruven Afanador's Torero (Edition Stemmle, $75), the fashion photographer's frankly obsessive study of young bullfighters in Spain, Mexico, Peru, and his native Colombia. In the absence of a new Bruce Weber book, Torero is this season's most unabashed celebration of male beauty—a big, luxuriously produced volume of dashingly handsome men in and out of their clothes. In this case, those clothes are an essential and absorbing part of the story. Like a lover who can't get close enough, Afanador studies their details: the slippers with their grosgrain bows, the gold embroidery that encrusts the jackets, the stiff capes, the sheer stockings, and, of course, the skintight pants that splay a man's genitals against his thigh with all the subtlety of sausages in silk. The outrageous elegance and cocky sexuality of this costume provides the ideal mirror for Afanador's exploration of the interplay of brutal masculinity and coquettish femininity in his young subjects. Displaying themselves with the hauteur of fashion models, the toreros are the epitome of male vanity and vulnerability. Afanador zeroes in on their cocks and their wounds and, without ever showing the men in action, evokes the operatic excess of the bullfighter's ritual sacrifice.

Finally, there's the nearly as operatic excess of Gabriel Bauret's Color Photography (Assouline, $65), a survey whose eccentricity is more impressive than its comprehensiveness. With the gorgeous, grainy blur of John Rawlings's flower study on the cover, this oversized book promises pure pleasure and, more often than not, delivers. Taking as his subject the wide range of color work, Bauret covers a lot of ground—from Steichen to Samaras, Lartigue to Leibovitz—and touches on many genres, but he never pretends to do more than sketch in a history. That leaves him free to be quite idiosyncratic and playful in his choices—to put Neil Winokur's butcher knife next to William Eggleston's famous red ceiling, for instance—and to be far more attentive to European photographers than the editors of previous compendiums of this sort. The result is a ravishing hodgepodge, an overabundance perfectly attuned to the holiday appetite.

Flawless wit: Penn's Fish Bones on a Plate (a frugal lunch) (1993)
Photo from Still Life/Bulfinch
Flawless wit: Penn's Fish Bones on a Plate (a frugal lunch) (1993)

Related story:
"The Lit Parade: Our 25 Favorite Books of the Year

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