Museum Home Past Exhibitions Paul Outerbridge: Command Performance

March 31–August 9, 2009 at the Getty Center

Images de Deauville / Outerbridge
Images de Deauville, 1936

This exhibition brings together over 100 photographs by Paul Outerbridge (American, 1896–1958) from all periods of his career, including his Cubist still life images, staged magazine photographs, and controversial nudes.

Outerbridge introduced an artist's sensibility to the black and white photographs he made for commercial purposes. By the 1930s he was working in color, using the intensely-hued carbro process to create advertising and fine art photographs. Outerbridge's work has appeared in magazines such as Vanity Fair, Harper's Bazaar, and McCall's, as well as in exhibitions of fine photography. In 1943 he moved to Southern California where he continued photographing and writing about photography until his death in 1958.

Self-Portrait / Outerbridge
Self-Portrait, 1924

Outerbridge burst onto the photographic art scene in the early 1920s with photographs that were visually fresh and technically adept. He applied his talent for the formal arrangement of objects to advertisements for men's haberdashery, glassware, and perfume in fashionable magazines such as Vanity Fair and Harper's Bazaar.

In 1925 Outerbridge moved to Paris to design layouts for French Vogue. His friendship with the photographer Man Ray put him in frequent contact with members of the European avant-garde. In 1928 he moved to Berlin and then to London to work in motion pictures before returning to New York. The following year, 12 of his photographs were included in the groundbreaking exhibition Film und Foto held in Stuttgart, Germany, and 10 of his prints were acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Cheese and Crackers / Outerbridge
Cheese and Crackers, 1922

Outerbridge was celebrated for his ability to transform commonplace objects into semiabstractions through a keen sensitivity to pattern and light. Outerbridge's working method was to sketch out his ideas on paper before setting up objects in the studio and lighting them. His extraordinary degree of control allowed him to explore spatial relationships in a way that led critics to compare him to Modernist painters of his day.

In Cheese and Crackers, Outerbridge carefully balanced dark against light and light against dark to create a composition that is more about the ability of photography to define forms and articulate textures than it is about the actual objects at hand.

Nude on Sofa / Outerbridge
Nude on Sofa, 1923
audio Audio: Cinematographer John Bailey talks about his first encounter with Outerbridge's photographs.

Although this photograph may look like a spontaneous snapshot at first glance, closer inspection reveals that it was carefully planned. Outerbridge made many images of nudes in exacting poses, exploring the abstract shapes and light and shadow created by the human form. In 1940 he acknowledged the challenges of this subject, "The advantages of photographing the nude are few...because nudes have very little, in fact practically no commercial value. The disadvantages are many because it is the most difficult thing to do from every point of view."

This photograph was made using the palladium process, one of the preferred printing methods at the time. It was expensive and time-consuming, but resulted in very beautiful prints, with fine gradation in tones and a high level of detail in the shadows.

The Shower / Outerbridge
The Shower, 1937

Increasingly dissatisfied with the limitations of the black-and-white medium, Outerbridge began researching and experimenting with various color processes. In the mid-1930s he spent several years mastering the three-color carbro transfer printing process. Color photography was primarily viewed as a commercial medium, but Outerbridge challenged that assumption by cultivating it as a means of personal expression.

The carbro color process allowed Outerbridge to naturalistically reproduce subtle skin tone variations in his nudes—something that had not been done before. This photograph was carefully composed to both obscure and reveal the body. Given the battery of lights and equipment required to make the exposure, it is unlikely that the figure is actually showering; rather, she is a model evoking the pleasure of doing so. Note the pale gold reflections of the studio lights on the shiny surface of the plastic, an effect that required masterful lighting skills.

The Potting Shed / Outerbridge
The Potting Shed, 1937

By the late 1930s the demand for color photography in advertising surged. Outerbridge worked as a freelance photographer for magazines such as House Beautiful, Mademoiselle, McCall's, Woman's Home Companion, and Town & Country as well as for corporate clients.

Featured on the March 1937 cover of House Beautiful, The Potting Shed reaches beyond traditional still life to the production of an elaborate set that served as a temporary stage for the arrangement of objects within it. As a construction for the sole purpose of photography, it is a tour de force. Outerbridge wrote about it in 1940, "Although its authentic realism speaks for itself, it was, nevertheless, a set built in the studio. The wood, of course, was old and had been carefully chosen from a pile that had been lying out in the weather for years. The window is a dusty relic of an old barn."

All images by Paul Outerbridge, Jr. 2008 G. Ray Hawkins Gallery, Beverly Hills, California