There is no dearth of self-portraiture in art history: Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Egon Schiele, F. Holland Day and Francesca Woodman are just a few of the artists consumed by recording their own likenesses in oil or gelatin silver. But even by their remarkable standards, there is nothing quite like the photograph above, a 1927 self portrait by American Paul Outerbridge.
In the 1920s and 1930s, first in luminous platinum black-and-white images …
… and later in the demanding three-color-matrix separation process of Carbro …
… Outerbridge created a diverse body of work that was at times on the cutting edge of modernist-art abstraction, making him friends with Man Ray, Duchamp, Brancusi and Archipenko, but also placing him alongside Edward Steichen, the darling of the Conde Nast world of commercial and fashion photography.
Outerbridge trumped Steichen when he perfected the only true color printing process of the era, Carbro, which demanded intense concentration in the lab. A satisfactory print took no less than nine hours to produce, making each one a singular challenge.
After abandoning commercial work entirely in the late 1930s, this former flaneur of Paris, Berlin and London retreated from the social whirl of the Euro elite to his family's suburban home in Monsey, N.Y. This self-imposed retreat allowed him to explore an entirely new kind of photography: bold nudes that went well beyond the decorous “studies” by black-and-white colleagues like Weston or even the older Alfred Stieglitz. Outerbridge's nudes featured such vibrant color and fetishistic focus that they remained largely unseen until his death in 1958.
Outerbridge’s professional career spanned little more than two decades, yet his artistic journey carried him from the Art Students League and Clarence White’s School in New York City to near overnight success, which he achieved with his first major assignment for the Ide Collar Co. in the November 1922 issue of the prestigious Vanity Fair:
His star rapidly ascended in the Manhattan magazine world. When Outerbridge left New York (with a stopover at the Royal Photographic Society in London) in early 1925 for a lucrative job for Vogue in Paris, he soon connected with expatriate artist/photographer Man Ray, whom he had known in New York, as well as with Bernice Abbott, who was working as an assistant for Ray. Escorted by Ray to meet Marcel Duchamp, the reigning Dada and Surrealist artist of the time, Outerbridge found the magazine ad for Ide Collars tacked to Duchamp's studio wall. Duchamp was even then an addicted chess player and father of the “ready-made” art object; Outerbridge’s collar ad must have pressed several buttons in his soul. Ide Collars, today one of the most iconic images of modernist photography, embodied all the formalist concerns that Outerbridge was working out in the upper-floor studio of his parents’ Manhattan apartment on West 74th Street. His painstaking attention to scale, composition, lighting and, later, color, define him as a modernist every bit as resolute as his European Bauhaus-influenced peers Moholy-Nagy and Rodchenko, or the Americans Steichen and Sheeler.
The Sheeler still life above incorporates many elements of the machine-age Precisionist ethos of the 1920s along with the brilliant, unlikely addition of the cactus. Similarly eclectic object groupings inhabit Outerbridge’s work, especially later in the 1930s, when his Carbros created stunningly unique compositional and color groupings in magazine advertising.
It is the mash-up of blatantly non-art objects in his work, done in the service of commerce, that for decades has defined the lower end of Outerbridge’s acceptance by historians and critics. Ironically, it is this same advertising imagery that seems to have caught the imagination of today’s cutting-edge photographers, artists who no longer care to define or limit their expression of photography as either art or commerce. This perspective is on display in a new exhibition of Outerbridge’s work at the Bruce Silverstein Gallery in New York City, where it will run through Sept. 17.
The gallery’s press release explains the timing of this exhibition, the first for Outerbridge in New York since 1979, and the largest since Command Performance at the Getty in 2009.
A survey of Outerbridge’s influential career is especially timely, as his work is consistently cited by a current generation of artists working in the photographic medium. Numerous contemporary artists riff on commercial strategies of image-making that derive from the aesthetics of advertising photography and our visual lexicon shaped by Outerbridge … By venerating quotidian commercial products through his elegant and striking formal arrangements, and taking a functional object out of its useful context, Outerbridge tapped the consciousness of modern art, which grappled with the experience of living a commercial existence, the impact of mass consumerism, and an ever expanding visual culture.
Outerbridge's 1937 Carbro Kandinsky, evokes the formalism of the émigré Russian painter while serving a putative commercial goal.
But Outerbridge was not immune to purely modernist-art abstractions, as we see in his ambiguously titled Political Thinking from 1938.
Steichen may have been one of the founding artists of the early 20th century American “art for art’s sake” movement, Photo Secession, but by the time Outerbridge emerged into mainstream commercial photography, Steichen himself had metamorphosed into a successful commercial photographer. He is said to have engaged Outerbridge in a kind of bake-off over lighting studies of the modest egg. Dozens of photographs were exchanged, and when Steichen presented his Triumph of the Egg …
… Outerbridge countered with one of his most clever photographs with the same title:
Outerbridge’s uncanny ability to present quotidian objects either singly or in eclectic groupings was a hallmark of his style. A modest dish of Jell-O, a near mesmerizing study in composition and lighting, is, for me, one of his most arresting images.
Was it meant to be a purely formalist and abstracted study or to supplement advertising copy?
In the early 1930s, when Outerbridge abandoned black-and-white for the Carbro color process, his dominance in commercial photography grew even greater, as few other photographers were willing or able to engage in the discipline required by the process. In 1940, he published his influential book on Carbro photography.
In the introduction to the catalog for the 1981 Laguna Beach Museum of Art exhibition Paul Outerbridge: A Singular Aesthetic, the photographer discusses an image of a lemon and an avocado. A side-by-side view of the Carbro and a reduction to black-and-white emphasizes the purely formalist elements of composition that always, even in color, preoccupied the photographer.
For a long time I was intrigued with the desire to do a composition making use of avocado pears on account of their fine simplicity of form, which, although basically ovoid, is even more subtle because of the irregularity of the curves … [I]n the original [print] the pears are over life size, which accentuates their pure design value by removing them somewhat from accepted naturalness. This composition is … angular and an example of the balancing of a large, somewhat centralized mass of less intense color by a smaller area of more intense color closer to the edge of the picture … It will be seen that these avocados form the base of a triangle, which culminates on the highlight of the lemon.
Perhaps the specter of Steichen once again looms here, namely Steichen's 1930 study of avocados …
… which itself evokes an earlier composition by Paul Strand:
One of Outerbridge’s most intricate, even obsessive Carbro still lifes is the 1938 Still Life with Fruit and Lithograph, in which he duplicates a Currier and Ives litho.
There are way too many paths and byways in Outerbridge’s life and art to explore in this post, and, unlikely as it might seem for such a major artist, there has yet to be a detailed biography. (Paul Martineau’s essay for the Command Performance catalog offers an arresting perspective.)
Outerbridge was active in Paris for several years in the mid-1920s, then returned to New York, where he worked briefly with experimental filmmaker Dudley Murphy, who whetted his interest in cinema. Returning to Europe, Outerbridge opened an elaborate studio with backing from the mannequin-manufacturing company Maison Siegal. The venture quickly failed. Outerbridge and his wife, Paula, separated, and Outerbridge went to Berlin, where he briefly studied film with G.W. Pabst. The next year, he moved to London, where he worked with E.A. Dupont on the films Atlantic and Picadilly.
He returned to New York with his life and career in chaos, but in the spring of 1929, he was included in the historic Film und Foto exhibition in Germany, and 10 of his early photographs in platinum were bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The next year, M.F. Agha, the art director for Vogue and Vanity Fair, wrote of Outerbridge in Advertising Arts:
Only the historian of arts will place Outerbridge in the right perspective. His is the place of a pioneer of that school of Modern Photography which is so close to the modern movement in painting as to be taken by some purists as imitation.
Ironically, that was the moment Outerbridge began to abandon black-and-white photography for experiments in the Carbro process. Ten years later, he abandoned commercial work altogether to concentrate on his series of fetishistic nudes.
Once again, the possibility of work in the movies beckoned, this time in Hollywood, in the seemingly unlikely guise of Technicolor. On reflection, the similarities between the registered three-color separation negatives of Carbro still photography and the Technicolor process are obvious. It was the doyenne of Technicolor, Natalie Kalmus, who contacted Outerbridge with a job prospect. The ex-wife of Technicolor founder Herbert Kalmus, she was widely regarded by many cinematographers as a meddling nuisance who tried to impose Technicolor’s technical guidelines on their aesthetic decisions. (Director Alan Dwan minced no words in calling her “a bitch.”) According to curators Paul Martineau and Graham Howe, Kalmus was more interested in offering Outerbridge a sexual collaboration rather than an artistic one, and the photographer demurred. As a young dandy decades earlier, Outerbridge had looked and played the part of a sophisticated bon vivant. One can’t help wondering whether Kalmus still harbored this image of him when she made her overture, or whether she might have heard of his controversial nudes and been attracted by the kink factor.
In any case, the two had a falling out, and this, along with the closed union shop that controlled jobs on studio productions, kept Outerbridge from securing work in the film industry.
He soon moved to the quiet town of Laguna Beach and, though nearly indigent, opened a small studio. In 1943, he married a local woman, Lois Weir, who owned a dressmaker’s shop. He wrote for several amateur camera magazines and tended Lois’ store. He also began to photograph in a much more casual, even impromptu style, mounting slightly overexposed Kodachrome transparencies on white board behind glass; he called these “miniatures in color.” He also photographed tableaux for the annual Laguna Beach Pageant of the Masters.
Outerbridge traveled in Mexico and made color photos in a snapshot style that anticipated William Eggleston by several decades.
There is a photo of Outerbridge from 1951, a melancholy image if you consider the lofty position he once held in the world of advertising. He sits on a folding canvas chair, a lion in winter, before a display of some of his most famous images — a patient hawker of his own wares, not unlike those who inhabit the sidewalks outside most art museums.
Today, many of these platinum and Carbro prints hanging side by side in the open air and sun command six-figure prices at auction.
A lifelong smoker, Outerbridge died at age 62 on Oct. 17, 1958. He had donated a large number of platinum and Carbro master prints to the Laguna Beach Museum of Art, where he expected them to remain, but in 1996, the financially strapped institution decided to de-access his work. It was hoped by photography historians and curators that the Getty, with its deep pockets, would purchase the work and keep it in Los Angeles. That did not happen, although the Getty, already rich in Outerbridge photographs, did acquire hundreds of papers and diaries for its archives. Much of the Laguna Beach collection went on the auction block and was dispersed into museums and private collections.
Outerbridge made few prints, especially the Carbros, and this precluded an active sales market with lots of turnover that could run up auction bids. It’s difficult to place prices on this work, which once represented the heart of photographic modernism; influenced Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin and Patrick Demarchelier; and inspires contemporary artists like Thomas Demand and legions of fashionista hipsters. What was once old becomes again new.