A pair of stilettos, shiny bee-stung lips, a long, lean body twisted in vulnerable positions against a street gritty with grime: the photography of Guy Bourdin often flirted with compromised innocence and isolation. His most seminal works are glamorised car crashes - shadowy scenes of beautiful women in runway threads, faces painted like dolls and frozen by flash bulb, stylised blood flowing from fresh victims of violent death. During the course of his 30-plus-year career, Bourdin's exhilaratingly inappropriate images would appear not on gallery walls, but in the pages of international fashion magazines. Born in 1928 in Paris, France, Bourdin was the puppet master of haute couture, a dark star of fashion photography on the payroll of French Vogue from 1955 to 1987. Editor Francine Crescent gave him unprecedented creative freedom and the artist was given to totalitarian control and personal whimsy, which all around him would do their utmost to accommodate. For Bourdin, it was his way, or no way at all. 'Guy did have the reputation of being difficult - the Stanley Kubrick of fashion photographers,' says Nicolle Meyer (above left), his professional muse from 1977 to 1980 and curator of a new book of Bourdin photographs, A Message for You. 'Not all models wanted to follow along with his demands; I had no qualms posing for him and never felt he asked for something off limits.' Despite his propensity to push his models - both physically and mentally - Bourdin's fame assured him of many willing subjects and assistants. His quest for the perfect shot, though, was not always rewarded. In the pre-digital days, before Adobe Photoshop, Bourdin achieved his effects through sets, props, make-up and tricks of the light, and Meyer recalls one famously botched attempt to dye the ocean 'bluer'. On that occasion his will was no match for the elements. 'He was very demanding,' recalls Meyer. 'He could be very funny. He was always respectful of me and I was integrated into his magical and surreal world, for which I'm very thankful.' Stories from the studio often hint at the bizarre - models are known to have fainted after having their bodies painted with glue, on which to mount pearls - and Bourdin's unfailing habit of polite address, even under pressure, added to an image of eccentricity. In contrast to the success he found behind the lens, Bourdin's personal life consisted of one disaster after another. Deserted by his mother then sent away by his father to the country home of his grandparents, he grew up a lonely child and was often found reading and writing by himself. Frustrated by his self-proclaimed mediocrity in fine art, he began to pursue an irreverent career in photography in Paris, counting among his mentors American modernist Man Ray, who lived in the French capital during the late 1950s. While his uncompromising vision gave birth to images that sent a buzz through the fashion world, it took a toll on those closest to him. His first wife - with whom he had a son - was institutionalised; his second hanged herself. One of his lovers tried to slash her wrists and another fell from a tree and died. Bourdin died in 1991 from cancer but, unlike contemporaries Helmut Lang and Richard Avedon, he had systematically said no to books, prints for collectors and interviews, leaving no definitive retrospective of his prolific career. 'He was a man apart, doing things in his own way, on his own terms,' Meyer attempts to explain, 'and maybe he just wanted to be left in peace.' After his death, his estate (including some rarely seen work) was tied up in a seven-year legal dispute between his last mistress, Martine Victoire, and his son, Samuel, an architect now based in Shanghai. Bourdin junior eventually won, but has to contend with the hefty sums in back taxes accrued over the years. Finally, 16 years after his demise, Meyer - with the help of Samuel and cultural historian Shelly Verthime - has published A Message for You. Divided into two volumes, it includes plates from Bourdin's 22-year reign as the main advertising photographer for shoe producer Charles Jourdan. Book two presents sketches and notes, and Meyer's account of a two-month road trip and shoot in the American Midwest. Icaro Kosak, his assistant in the 70s heyday, once said about Bourdin's life: 'It's like the elephant-in-the-dark effect. Everyone knows a bit of the story.' The whole picture - should it ever come to light - would undoubtedly look a lot like one of Bourdin's own. An exhibition, presented by On Pedder to mark the Hong Kong release of A Message for You, will be staged at LG/F, Hollywood Centre, 233 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan from October 17 to 31. The book will be available from tomorrow at On Pedder (HK$800; 20 Pedder Street, Central), while stocks last.