An instant success, Paul Outerbridge's photography continues to inspire nearly 100 years after his heyday, and is now celebrated in a new monograph
If you type “Paul Outerbridge” into a Google image search it doesn’t take long before work by other photographers turns up – images by contemporaries, such as Edward Weston, but also by successive generations of photographers who’ve been inspired by his work.
The feminist Jo Ann Callis explicitly referenced Outerbridge’s nudes in her 1970s work, for example; in contemporary photography, the new wave of still life photography championed by image-makers such as Bobby Doherty and Grant Cornett references his work, especially his lurid use of colour. Outerbridge’s striking photography comes in and out of fashion, as it did in his own lifetime, but, nearly 100 years on, somehow still retains a contemporary edge.
Born in 1896, Outerbridge started out as an illustrator and designer before getting into photography while serving in the US Army in 1917. In 1921 he enrolled in the Clarence H White school of photography at Columbia University, and within a year his work was being published in Vanity Fair and Vogue.
By 1925 the Royal Photographic Society had invited Outerbridge to stage a solo show in London: moving to Paris afterwards, he befriended Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and Berenice Abbott, worked with French Vogue and Edward Steichen, and built the largest and best-equipped advertising photography studio of the time.
In 1929 he returned to New York, where he opened a studio producing commercial and art photography and became the highest-paid image-maker in the city. He also started experimenting with colour photography using the complicated tri-color carbro process, and by 1937 his work was included in an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1940 he published his seminal book, Photographing in Color.
Outerbridge liked to shoot female nudes, including fetishistic images which eventually embroiled him in a scandal and put him out of favour; retiring as a commercial photographer as a result, he moved to Hollywood in 1943, married fashion designer Lois Weir, and launched a joint fashion company called Lois-Paul Originals. He died of lung cancer in 1958; one year later, the Smithsonian Institution staged a solo show of his work.
Taschen’s new monograph, Paul Outerbridge, is a guide to his work from his professional peak to his Hollywood retreat, including Cubist still lifes, magazine photographs, and those controversial erotic images. The still lifes still look great, whether his earlier, jazzy monochromes or his later, luridly-coloured prints; his nudes still have the power to disturb, a 1937 image called Women with Claws, for example, showing a nude with metal-tipped gloves tearing at her flesh.
Paul Outerbridge is edited by Manfred Heiting and Elaine Dines-Cox, and published by Taschen, priced £19.95. www.taschen.com