PRINT Summer 1977

Outerbridge from Cubism to Fetishism

PAUL OUTERBRIDGE’S EARLY CUBIST abstractions, photographs primarily of commonplace objects, and his later color work were revered by many. Well published, exhibited and collected by the major museums, these photographs were independently motivated, and kept uncompromised by the commercial illustrative and advertising market to which he sold much of his work. But when Outerbridge undertook what was perhaps his greatest, most challenging work, dealing with fetishism and the female nude, he ran up against an insurmountable middle-class morality which led eventually to his obscurity for 30 years.

Moving from New York to California in the early 1940s, Outerbridge left his position at the top of the commercial photographic ladder for virtual retirement at the age of 48. Not that he was a wealthy man, although he was surely well paid for his commercial photography in the ’20s and ’30s. Rather, he had grown tired of this work and was entertaining ideas of furthering his career in the movie industry or in writing. He was not then aware that he would make only a few more carbro-color photographs, putting the finishing touches to some of the most impressive examples of color photography concerned with sexual decadence and fetishism. It was clear that he liked the idea of a retreat, and California came to be what Monsey, his refuge near New York, had been for him in the ’30s. New York in the early ’20s and Paris in the mid-’20s, then Berlin and London, were a different matter. Those were adventurous years when Outerbridge had been consolidating his position, creating art beside the best artists,where he had worked with a characteristic poise, elegance and supreme self-confidence.

It was in the summer of 1921 that Outerbridge had begun a serious and adventurous relationship with photography. Innovative photographers of the time were concerned with ideas about Cubism and the abstraction of the subject as a plastic idea, aims that were the immediate and logical starting point for the young Outerbridge. His studies four years previously in anatomy and life drawing, at the Art Students League of New York, were followed by a period of dabbling in theater stage design and production, an interest in cinema and writing, and a short term in military service. Now his perhaps most formative experiences were provided by frequent and compulsive visits to visual and performing arts events, and by his taking a studio apartment near his artist friends in Greenwich Village, just across Washington Square from where Marcel Duchamp lived and played chess. Although there is no record of their having met at that time, Outerbridge was aware of Duchamp, and Duchamp was later to become aware of Outerbridge.

During the same summer Outerbridge joined the Clarence H. White School of Photography where, inspired by White’s generative enthusiasm, he made a great many photographs of nudes, together with his abstractions. The nudes were secondary to the abstractions but they were nevertheless admirably sensitive Neoclassical studies, and provided the foundation for his later, more sophisticated, work in color photography.

Outerbridge was aware of the New York Armory Show of 1913, and he may have seen the paintings of Duchamp and Picabia at Alfred Stieglitz’s Photo-Secession Gallery in New York. He may also have seen paintings or even photographs by Morton Schamberg, who, until his death in 1918, was also concerned with geometric abstraction. Imbued with a sense of romanticism, Outerbridge’s own abstractions were closer to the early work of Paul Strand than to that of Alfred Stieglitz, who claims to have first codified the Cubist notion in photography with his well-known photograph The Steerage, of 1907. In 1922 Outerbridge’s diary indicates that he wanted to acquire a copy of the final issue of Camera Work, published in 1917, which contained 11 of these early images by Strand focusing on objects of functional and commonplace subject matter. By 1923 Outerbridge’s Marmon Crankshaft looks quite similar to Strand’s Double Akeley, 1922. Both images display the essential nature of a mechanism as distillation of pure form. Both use heavy shadow areas to accentuate the monumental and sculptural qualities of the machine.

Outerbridge, like Strand, used light and shade to accentuate his crisp compositions. But unlike Strand, whose shadows are flat, static blocks of structurally darkened light, Outerbridge controlled his shadows to show their detail, animating them as kinetic elements in the composition. A fine example of this is the Saw and Square, 1921, about which he wrote, “One of the earliest experiments in light and form pattern—here two simple objects, a saw and a square, have been combined with shadows as a component part of the design. The saw has been purposely thrown out of focus to resolve the teeth into a straight edge.”1 Although visually based on an acute feeling for design and luxurious texture, his concerns were consciously intellectual.

Outerbridge favored working with artificial lighting in his studio. He conceived his images first by sketching them out in crayon; then, with a clear idea of the proposed image, he would set up his subject, adjust the studio lights and camera, and make his exposure. The Saltine Box, 1922, explores artificial light reflections from a polished surface to make both scale and position appear ambiguous. Outerbridge says, “This abstraction created for aesthetic appreciation of line against line and tone against tone without any sentimental associations, utilizes a tin Saltine cracker box, so lighted that the shadow and reflections from its highly polished surface produced this result. Note especially the gradation on the top of the box.”2 The form appears bricklike, but in reality it is an upturned tin box. What we assume to be the shadow of a nearby “brick” is actually a solid object: Outerbridge placed the corner of his black film holder flat on the surface to the right and in front of the Saltine box. The surface on which these objects were placed was a piece of heavy backdrop paper whose far left-hand side was curved upward to catch the light reflections from the box’s shiny surface. At the lowest point light reflections connect with the highest corner of the box (on its upper right side), creating the illusion of another plane.

It is interesting that there are two versions of this particular image. Both are made from the same negative and are almost identical prints, but one has its surface retouched to remove what is apparently a crease in the metal surface of the tin box. This crease concentrates light onto the paper background which, in both versions, remains unaltered. An approximately equal number of finished, mounted prints exists of both the retouched and unretouched versions of the image. In the retouched prints Outerbridge sought to make his image pictorially “correct,” eliminating clues that might uncover his subtle illusion. The unretouched version, however, provides us with a different sort of clue, helping us to rationalize the picture and to understand Outerbridge’s cleverness.

In February 1922, Paul Outerbridge was in the audience at an Alfred Stieglitz lecture given at the Art Center, in New York. But it was not until two years later, when he had amassed a considerable body of work, that he visited and talked with Stieglitz at length. At the same time Outerbridge began sculpture studies with Alexander Archipenko, who, in return for photographs of his sculptures, allowed him to work in his studio. Like most of Outerbridge’s study projects, this too was a brief undertaking.

Both Strand and Stieglitz made photographs from city rooftops, and out of windows, in 1923. As an independent exploration, or perhaps by Stieglitz’s direct encouragement, Outerbridge also made a number of abstract images of the city. Less common than his still-life works, they demonstrate Outerbridge’s versatility in visualizing abstract designs in subject matter over which he had less direct manipulative control.

By 1924, Outerbridge’s photographs were well published by magazines such as Arts and Decoration, Harpers Bazaar, and Vanity Fair, with work sponsored by companies such as Pyrex and the Ide company. Perhaps one of the most distinguished Outerbridge photographs was made for Ide. The 1922 Ide Collar, white and starched, was placed onto a checkerboard background, the alternating pattern of black and white squares broken by the circular form of the collar. When published in the July 1922 issue of Vanity Fair the Ide Collar was seen by Duchamp in Paris. Duchamp was impressed by its design abstraction, no doubt reflecting the literalness of his own work, and probably felt a touch of nostalgia for this late example of Cubism and even for his own New York chess-playing days. Duchamp cut the page from the magazine and fixed it to the wall of his studio, where, when Outerbridge himself and Man Ray visited Duchamp some three years later, it was recognized on the spot.

That Edward Steichen and Paul Outerbridge both worked in commercial photography during the same period sparked a highly competitive relationship. In homage to the 1,000 tea cups which Steichen purportedly made, Outerbridge claimed to have made 4,000 photographs of eggs! In the years during Outer-bridge’s absence from New York—he was in Europe from 1925 to 1929—Steichen’s reputation grew considerably in the advertising field. With the support of Conde Nast, he despotically ruled over the prevailing style of advertising photography. Photographers seeking work with Nast were invariably told, “If you want a job, you must take pictures like Steichen.” The uncompromising Outerbridge would not accept this conformity, so he worked for magazines other than those controlled by Nast. Possibly as a gesture of reaction against Steichen’s commercial stature, in 1932 Outerbridge made a photograph entitled The Triumph of the Egg, which satirizes an earlier photograph by Steichen bearing the same title. Outerbridge’s egg sits absurdly and impossibly on the peak of a pyramid with a plastic triangle as a collar. The photographer’s flash-bulb reflector, placed behind, completes a composition that is a late example of geometric constructivist design. By comparison, Steichen’s egg sits, rather less triumphantly, under a gardener’s glass bell-jar, viewed from above, in a photograph that has testified to Steichen's acknowledgment of Cubism in 1921.

Outerbridge’s Triumph of the Egg must have suggested to the informed viewer how far Steichen could deviate toward commercialism from his early concerns for non-objective art. Despite all jealousy and criticism, Steichen was extremely successful, and retired from Conde Nast in 1942 after a remarkably successful commercial career. With the support and praise of his brother-in-law Carl Sandburg, Steichen entered active military service to command a naval photographic unit.

By 1945 we find Steichen a hero, thanks to his military achievements, and Outerbridge, having been refused active service by the U.S. Air Force, out West, looking for a job in Hollywood. A year later Steichen embarked upon another valorous course as the Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Here he created “The Family of Man,” an exhibition disclaimed by the photographers of the established fine-art persuasion because they saw it to be no more than a tribute to Steichen’s own sentimental view of humanity. Nevertheless, he was highly praised for this exhibition from other quarters, and became the hero of the liberal community.

Meanwhile, Outerbridge completed a radical and monumental body of work on sexuality and fetishism that was repudiated by prudish and hypocritical bourgeois morality. Unrecognized and misunderstood, Outerbridge declined like Stieglitz, but without a legacy. Arrogant and suave, but defenseless, he was trapped by the need to survive, seeing his stature diminish along with his income, and dying of cancer in 1958. The “triumph” was Steichen’s, as he obtained the mellowing aura of immortality while Outerbridge became the Black Sheep.

Returning from Europe, Outerbridge realized that color photography was soon to become the major medium for commercial illustration. He experimented with many different techniques. Finally, after 18 months’ work, he perfected “carbro color,” a difficult process but far superior to the alternative of the time. With his impeccable photographic and professional expertise, he rapidly acquired many large advertising and magazine accounts. He also began, on an independent basis, to explore the creative possibilities of photographing in color, with female nudes as his major concern.

The more conventional color photographs of the nude for which Outerbridge is known suffer varying degrees of compromise because of moral censorship. Outerbridge was interested in the classics and their influence on painting, but he was also interested in sexuality, eroticism, fetishism and decadence. His photographs reflecting these preoccupations divide into two groups, those which he felt he could offer for publication and exhibition, and those which remained to be seen only by private audiences. The public work is characterized by that type of upper-middle-class respectability bestowed upon the paintings of Cabanel and Bouguereau, who were able thinly to mask the sexuality of their pictures, like guardians of bourgeois moral prudery. Writing about his nude photographs for a general audience in his book Photographing in Color (1940), Outerbridge himself took a similar stance: “The nude should be impersonal; a fatal error is to have your model establish a personal or intimate contact with the person viewing the picture. Have a lovely nude model look directly at the camera, especially with a provocative smile or inviting glint, and you have usually crossed the border between the nude and a particular girl without her clothes on.”3

However, his photographs for a private audience drew on a different set of values, adopting something of the 18th-century French outlook of Boucher and Fragonard. As entertainment for a stable, dominant, aristocratic class, their paintings were more overtly sexually titillating. Outerbridge, with his own upper-middle-class background and his studies in academic painting, had little trouble transposing the ideas of liberated sexuality of that period into his photographs, although despite his aspirations, he was himself still trapped in the ever-broadening American middle class. Consequently, Outerbridge was probably less sexually liberated than he wanted to be. In New York in the early ’20s he enjoyed “some wild chorus girl parties and a lot of drinking,”4 and in Paris in the mid-’20s regularly visited the Folies Bergére and read many erotic and fetishistic books—including one entitled White Slavery. Also, as his close personal friend, Man Ray would have shown Outerbridge his erotic Cubist photographs showing himself and Ki Ki in various sexual positions, which he had privately printed in 1929 as a vaguely poetic tribute to the seasonal changes of the year.

Eighteenth-century French painting appears to be a direct axial source for Outerbridge’s nudes, particularly his odalisques. Boucher’s Miss O’Murphy, a painting greatly admired by Casanova, shows a naked lady sprawled frontally on a satin-covered sofa; Outerbridge’s own Odalisque shows an equally delightful lady upturned on a sofa in a very similar fashion. Both Outerbridge and Boucher present the female nude with a balance of classical, naive shamelessness and worldly sensuality, for the delight of an aristocratic audience—an audience which, in Outerbridge’s case, is a fantasy of himself.

The coyness of Dutch Girl, 1936, rests on the same assumptions, plus the further thematic constituent of a national archetype, another popular theme of the 18th-century French painters. In this case a mildly erotic pun is achieved by the absurd “Dutch Cap.” So convincing was this thematic surrogate theme for an essential eroticism that Dutch Girl became the first color photograph of a female nude to be exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. It was argued that the flesh tones were more credible than any former color photograph had been able to achieve. (With the introduction of much faster and cheaper processes such as Kodachrome and Dufaycolor in the early ’30s, few photographers or technicians troubled to take the 9 hours and 20 minutes it takes to complete a carbro-color print, despite its superior richness of tone and absolute permanence.)

In photographing the nude, Outerbridge was mainly concerned with making images, shocking in their suggestiveness, about subjects which were “naughty” or taboo. Naked ladies wearing top hats that one might assume belonged to their male companions, satin sheets indicative of luxurious decadence, exotic hosiery and gloves, various kinds of masks and rubber bathing caps were his favorite props for the ritualized performance of sexual masquerade. Outerbridge explains his subject content with the academic stance of his early formal training at the Arts Students League: “According to the law of opposites, large with small, hard with soft, shiny with dull, hot with cold.”5 That is, of course, a naive view of the complex metaphors and symbols that he himself uses, but one that can still be applied to most of his fetish images, especially his nude torso with packer’s gloves pressed into the stomach and breast. The initial conception of this photograph included the head and shoulders, with the model staring piercingly at the camera through a pink mask. Outerbridge may originally have had her stare at the viewer because the mask depersonalizes her to an extent sufficient to transfer the model’s sexuality to the fetishism of the picture. Perhaps that was still too personal for Outerbridge, since he finally chose to crop the picture, showing only her torso with the gloves.

Pubic hair in a photograph was a major problem. Its display in photographs was frowned upon; in fact, its inclusion in published photographs was at the time illegal. It was quite simple to rationalize, as Outerbridge did for his readers, that if Bouguereau could choose to work without it, then photographers were well advised to follow his example. The photographer, therefore, was expected to avoid pubic hair by keeping it away from the front of his camera and to draw upon his technical expertise should the result be unavoidable. As a result of this restriction, peculiar practices were adopted. Shaving the pubis was usually the first step but, should the vaginal lips appear in the photograph, further manipulative work was necessary. By retouching the negative this detail could be eliminated altogether, to create the illusion of a solid, featureless, apparently asexual anatomy. While this appeared to satisfy moral decency, the actual effect was to draw one’s attention to the area, suggesting a sexual fetish or an erotic device, thus creating even more sexual interest in the area than one might have found in the original anatomy. Aware of this effect, Outerbridge chose to use the procedure only where appropriate. Yet, as it was common for him to ignore all such restrictions, he essentially continued to photograph according to the dictates of his personal fantasy, maintaining a facade of moral decency as a protection against philistine attitudes and the law.

A contradiction between what the photograph appears to be and what Outerbridge says it is occurs with his Girl with Fan, 1937. The partially undressed girl—“the shoulder straps were too wide and bunchy”—finds modest protection behind an open fan. The fan itself bears the bizarre motif of one black and one white hen, pecking at a snail who crosses the bare bottom of a naked child lying face down under a bush, “because its colors harmonized so well with the general scheme of the composition.”6 Outerbridge thus creates a protective verbal decoy to satisfy both the technical and esthetic curiosity of his audience and his own desire to publish fetish images. He deliberately avoids discussing his intuitive picture-making decisions beyond a practical point.

Censorship in the ’40s raised problems for museum curators trying to establish credibility for the importance of their photography collections. Photographs of questionable moral content opened the curator and museum to criticism, a problem no doubt faced by Beaumont Newhall when he came to establish the first department of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. When Newhall selected three of Outerbridge’s carbro-color prints to be the first color photographs acquired by the collection, he chose still-life and domestic interior subjects from the body of work Outerbridge had made largely for advertising illustration. The necessary limitations of this “safe” material prevented the more original and exciting work by Outerbridge from being acquired by public collections. Other curatorial selections of Outerbridge’s work also carefully and nervously picked around the nude material, leaving most of this work in the photographer’s estate, unseen and unknown until recently, the unintentionally private art of a major photographer.

Graham Howe is currently enrolled at UCLA as a graduate student in photography.



1. From the verso of the same print in the Outerbridge estate.

2. From the verso of the same print in the Outerbridge estate.

3. Paul Outerbridge, Photographing in Color, New York. 1947, p. 67,

4. From an unpublished autobiography by Paul Outerbridge. ca. 1929.

5. Outerbridge, Photographing, p. 55.

6. Ibid., p. 164.