Los Angeles

Paul Outerbridge

Is there anybody left who would question the viability of photography as an artistic medium? With high-profile exhibitions of the Pictures generation and the New Topographics group, and a slew of recent or upcoming group shows of emerging artists working in and around the medium, photography never seemed more serious as a medium—or site of discourse. Even Michael Fried, a major critic who by and large sidestepped three decades of art’s development after Minimalism, eventually turned his attention to the once-lowly discussion.

Still, not every photograph qualifies as art—or even aspires to the category. In fact, given the exponential proliferation of photographic images, very few do. But photography’s relatively brief history is filled with many fascinating border skirmishes, and one of the most compelling involves Paul Outerbridge, a master technician who worked successfully executing elaborate domestic still-life commissions for magazines such as Vanity Fair, McCall’s, and House Beautiful in the first half of the twentieth century, but derailed his career by pushing what he considered his, well, “serious” art: a body of work increasingly comprised of stagy, erotic female nudes.

The historical tension between these perceived poles was amplified in a major retrospective of Outerbridge’s work at the J. Paul Getty Museum that featured more than one hundred works, from early black-and-white prints to the complex carbro- (a portmanteau of “carbon” and “bromide”) process color works for which he became most famous. The skin tones of the nudes showcase the rich hues of the latter, and by contemporary standards the majority of Outerbridge’s “scandalous” images are rather tame; most would look perfectly at home in Vanity Fair—in either the advertising or editorial section. Several of these— including Nude with Claws, in which a woman presses the blades of leather gardening gloves against her breast and ribs, and Phoenix Rising, both 1937, in which a classical male bust sits atop a woman’s bare chest—aggressively crop out the face in favor of fetishistic attention to the female torso and props, hinting at sympathies shared with Outerbridge’s Surrealist friends Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp. (The latter reportedly hung a reproduction of Outerbridge’s elegant black-and-white Ide Collar, 1922, in his studio and declared it a readymade.)

Paradoxically, then, the nudes anticipate much contemporary commercial photography, while the work-for-hire setups emerge as a significant precursor for a diverse group of younger artists, including Roe Ethridge, Elad Lassry, and Eileen Quinlan, among others, who have investigated the codes and artifice of the photographic still life. Outerbridge’s tableaux are consistently rigorous in composition, mixing “textbook” formal refinement (he authored the instructional Photographing in Color in 1940) with bottom-line pragmatism. The Coffee Drinkers, 1939, in which four men in business attire (one wearing a gingham apron) gather in a modern American kitchen, was actually photographed at a department store—a location that afforded a dressed set and more space to accomplish the shot. The most striking of Outerbridge’s still-life compositions feature frames within frames: In Tools with Blueprint, 1939, an image of a house is situated so that it appears either as a view out of a construction site or an image tacked to the wall; Images de Deauville, 1936, is similarly composed, with a framed image of a “distant” sailboat and an assortment of objects, including a scale-defying seashell and die, situated in the foreground.

Outerbridge frequently borrowed from art history (Ingres, Picasso, Kandinsky, and so on) in both his commercial and personal work, but regardless of these references, his compositions evidence the work of a dedicated modernist who understood that one could fully construct a photographic image, twice over: first, in front of the lens; second, in the lab. In retrospect, his “art” and his commercial work appear as parallel ways of doing the same inventive thing—making photographs rather than taking them. This timely survey should help to redeem Outerbridge’s valuable contribution at and beyond the boundaries of the photographic medium.

Michael Ned Holte