Friday, 7 June 2019

The Poetic and Secret Lists of French Fashion Photographer Guy Bourdin

One of the articles in the March issue of French Vogue explained that the late French fashion photographer Guy Bourdin kept a secret list of all the titles he had imagined for a particular photograph. As he had a prolific career, he must have made quite a bit of these lists. But he wanted to keep them secret, and he never shared them with anybody, and did not publish them. 

While it may seem farfetched to give a title to a fashion photography, Guy Bourdin’s works are beautiful and intriguing, and knowing their secret titles would certainly have been interesting. You can see some of his photographs here and here. Guy Bourdin died in 1991, but he is still an influential fashion figure today.

Journalist Arthur Dreyfus wrote for Vogue Paris that he had bought a chair from the famous Studio 54 in New York at an auction. He found under the cushion a list of titles written in pencil by Guy Bourdin, all the secret titles for a particular photograph published in Vogue in April 1985, which shows a woman lying on a dance club floor, grabbing the ankle of a woman wearing glittery silver stilettos. 
Guy Bourdin (c) The Guy Bourdin Estate
The article reveals the 23 titles Guy Bourdin had imagined for this particular photograph. He was a French citizen, lived in France, and thus his works are still protected by the French droit d’auteur. How could the droit d’auteur view this publication? 

Le Titre

First, can titles be protected? Article L. 112-4 of the French Intellectual Property Code specifically protects the title of a work protected by copyright, if it is original enough. 

The particular photograph is original enough to be protected by copyright. Therefore, its title can be protected if original enough. In our case, we do have a list of titles (more about thatlater). Some of them, such as “Le pouvoir de l’argent” (the power of money), may not be original enough by themselves, but others certainly are, such as “La Belle en boîte dormant [trop bouffon]”, (the Beauty sleeping in a club, [too funny] with a pun on Bois, wood, and boîte, club).

La Liste

In our case, the list had 23 titles, all published in the Vogue article. This is a compilation of elements. We saw that some titles are protected by copyright, but others are not. However, the list can be entirely protected by the droit d’auteur as a “compilation” (same word in English and in French). The compilation has to be original enough, which is the case here. So the entire list is also protected.

Le Droit Moral

Guy Bourdin had not published the list in his lifetime. The article explains that he actually refused to make the lists of titles he invented for his photographs public, and that he kept them secret. It is only by accident that Arthur Dreyfus was able to acquire one of them, and he had the knowledge to understand the significance of the discovery. 

Since the list is protected by the droit d’auteur, its author also benefits from the protection of droit moral. One of the rights provided to authors by the French droit moral is the right of first publication. Only the author has the right to decide to publish his work, article L. 121-2 of the French Intellectual Property Code.

Droit moral is “permanent, inalienable, and imprescriptible,” article L. 121-1 of the French Intellectual Property Code. It can be bequeathed, and heirs may thus exercise this right as long as they know they have it (somebody still owns the moral right in Molière’s plays, but nobody knows who is it [could it be YOU?]).

In one somewhat recent case, Victor Hugo’s heirs had unsuccessfully tried to prevent the publication of a sequel to Les Misérables, but the Cour de cassation, the French Civil Supreme Court, held that freedom of expression, as protected by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, must prevail over moral rights. 

In our case, the Estate of Guy Bourdin may have authorized the publication of the list. It is certainly a decision which benefits the public, as the list reads like a poem, and makes us wonder if the other lists, lost forever, were as beautiful.

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