PRINT May 1995


In this ongoing series, writers are invited to discuss a contemporary work that has special significance for them.
Paul Outerbridge, Jr., Woman with Mask, ca. 1937, carbro-color print, 15 1/8 x 10 7/8".

I HAVE ALWAYS been an enthusiast of erotic images—high or low, flirtatious or hardcore. I am one of those indefatigable libidinous gazers: people, pictures, books, films. Though I’m something of a naïf—I blush, and am easily put out of countenance—I guess polemically I’m a libertarian, one who holds that looking is a feature of sexual license, and that images can’t be made without desire of some kind. So you’d imagine that the photographer who could write, “What this country needs are more and better nudes,” would be dear to my heart. Still, though I’d seen Paul Outerbridge images over the years, I unaccountably (a charitable euphemism) wasn’t much interested—until I saw Woman with Mask.

The work summarizes the major attractions of Outerbridgism in this genre: masterly formal achievement, in the service of an intense, idiosyncratic erotic vision—lascivious, decadent, sometimes almost crackpottedly fetishistic, and often a mix of all. My kind of esthetic—especially if you also find in Outerbridge a dated air of provocative innocence, carnal yet somehow benign, particularly in these post-Hustler decades. This is work of peculiarly confessional awe, which suits me: I sometimes think of my own fiction as children’s stories for adults, as having not just my own impressionable brand of innocence but also (I hope) a provocative visual intensity and a lyricism that strives to be both wild and fastidious. More and more, I write about the dazzling volatile fact—and imagery—of women and sex, but I don’t traffic in penetration details, I trade in rose-thorn kisses, and in sudden, quirky disrobings in cinematically staged settings.

Woman with Mask is one of the cavalcade of nudes that Outerbridge created in the ’30s, when he had set himself to mastering that genre and the carbro-color process—a process godforsakenly painstaking and uncertain, demanding huge expense and 9 1/2 hours of darkroom excruciation per print. The reward of this delicate Stakhanovism is a nonpareil tour de force of photographic color: pearlescent, plush, at once ultravivid—lurid almost—and superbly specific and subtle, capable of registering exotic minor hues, the textures and patterns of fabrics and furnishings, and all the rosy suffusions, mottlings, shiny creams, and blue-veined translucent grays of a strong-lit nude.

Woman with Mask isn’t one of Outerbridge’s flashier prodigies. No glassy mustard-and-gun-metal setting, no living arbor of splendidly floral torso. But there is a Mediterranean voluptuousness to that milky aquamarine with its nightclubbish shadows, and trademark Outerbridgian fine harmonics calibrate the auburn hair, flesh, nacreous pale-violet mask, and glossy mouth (a tablespoon of scarlet to sweeten the whole) . That quirky Technicolor master Michael Powell might have shot this image if he’d changed cameras and métiers.

As to the woman herself, a prototypical citizen of Outerbridgian physical culture: trimly zaftig, naturally statuesque. She embodies, I confess, a physical ideal that has always haunted me. Is her presence here testament to a bygone era’s preLite conventions of glamour? No—it’s all Outerbridge. In characteristically hyperpunctilious speculations on the ideal nude (researched at the Folies Bergeres), Outerbridge pronounces that such a woman, who “rarely looks good in modern clothes,” should be “rather high-waisted and long-legged but well-rounded and delicately plump.” He even goes so far as to float specifications for each body element (14 inches around the calf!). This is all pretty preposterous, unsavory, exuding the odor of a quantifying voluptuary and a crank. But it’s also part of Outerbridge’s oddball, grandly outré charm, displaying again the obsessional rigor—I’m both moved and discomforted—of his vision.

The psychoerotics: Woman with Mask assembles quite a package. The model’s pose, her slight contortion, sends the twang of sexualized scenario through the work, in chorus with the equivocal dramatics of her self-display: on the one hand brazenly demonstrative, on the other, hidden-faced, constrained (hands locked above head). Her doubly inert visage—mask’s blank gaze, mouth’s awkward inexpressiveness—places a hokey, arrested off-note at the center of everything. And so adds an edgy, odd sexiness, one more awed and reverberant than Tamara de Lempicka’s Deco chic or Betty Page’s grin.

The mask is not one of Outerbridge’s kinkiest moments: no teat-shaped headpiece, no top hat/rubber cap/mask ensemble. But it certainly is kinky enough, stagily overloading an already dense scenario—that’s the Outerbridge way.

That’s why his nudes always wear lipstick. They’re eternally glamoured up for the going rigors of going bare. It makes you wonder what Outerbridge might do with the beautiful occupants of paradise. Who knows . . . if paradise is in fact earthly, and God is worldly, wayward, and a little witty, maybe this is how some of those folk already look.