I remember seeing this ad as an art student—it kind of had everything: a post-Carnaby Street, pre-hippie moment with mixed and matched colorful shoes and tights, presenting an edgy story and a sense of unattainable style.
It’s impossible to explain how unbelievably cool Charles Jourdan shoes were back then, and how coveted. None of us could afford them, but I was eventually able to buy a pair of red slip-on moonboots at a 70%-off sale at Macy’s. I wore them to death.
We paid attention to the ads and knew they were something different, but it wasn’t until I moved to New York in 1972 that I understood there was a “new thing” happening in fashion photography that included work by Deborah Turbeville, Helmut Newton, Chris von Wangenheim, and, of course, Guy Bourdin. Fashion stories were being told, often depicting terrible things done to women—little murder mysteries and sadomasochistic fictions that seemed more like costume and fantasy play than an alert for feminist revolt. Turbeville’s dreamy, remote women in bathhouses looked more like ethereal girls than the great-great-grandmothers of heroin chic that they turned out to be. When I saw this picture in the early 70s, I thought about Nellie being tied to the tracks.
Nellie, the Beautiful Cloak Model was one of the most popular classic melodramas of the early 1900s. It was middle-brow entertainment dismissed by critics as formulaic. It contained a number of clichés that were typical of the genre: There was often a poor heroine who was secretly the child of a wealthy family with a scheming relative trying to steal her inheritance. Nellie was exposed to dramatic physical perils including being crushed by an elevator, bound to a ship’s mast, and tied to the train tracks. Nellie narrowly escaped death and was always rescued by a handsome man who didn’t know she was rich.
By the time I was a child, Nellie was a stock character who’d found her way into Saturday morning cartoons and kids’ pretend games. I like to think about how pictures are viewed in their own cultural moments and how they change in our perception as they age. One dramatic history-altering event can change our perception of an image forever. Robert Longo’s series of monumental drawings, Men in the Cities (1979), and Sarah Charlesworth’s photograph series Stills (1980) both show people in mid-air, jumping or falling to their deaths. The moment we had grainy newspaper images of people jumping from the Twin Towers, these images took on a completely different meaning. Their post-9/11 interpretation made them seem eerily prescient when they were made 20 years earlier.
Who wouldn’t look at Bourdin’s photograph now and think about bondage, cruelty, and eventual death? I doubt that most viewers would perceive anything light or fun or clichéd in this image as I did. Though, I must admit, bright red-orange rope is pretty beautiful.
Laurie Simmons is an artist and filmmaker based in New York. This essay was originally published by the Hillman Photography Initiative at Carnegie Museum of Art, which investigates the life cycle of images: their creation, transmission, consumption, storage, potential loss, and reemergence. For more on the Initiative and to offer public commentary on this image, click here.