A photograph, Outerbridge wrote, “should do something to its beholder; either give a more complete appreciation of beauty, or, if nothing else, even a good mental kick in the pants.”1 Following through on both counts, Outerbridge produced some of the 20th century’s more sublime and outrageous pictures. His exquisite modernist images from the 1920s were featured in glamorous magazines, including Vanity Fairand Vogue. Shifting gears, Outerbridge spent the next decade mastering color photography, producing vivid commercial pictures for corporate clients, as well as, for more rarefied audiences, unsettling nudes that edged toward Surrealism and still seem otherworldly today.
Changing taste shaped responses to Outerbridge’s work, during and after his lifetime. He was a darling of the avant-garde in the ’20s and the highest paid photographer in New York in the ’30s, but a telling 1951 self-portrait that shows Outerbridge in a folding chair, awaiting customers in front of a modest rented booth at a local art fair in Laguna Beach, suggests his changing fortunes. Marcel Duchamp was so taken with Outerbridge’s emblematically modern Ide Collar ad in the November 1922 issue of Vanity Fair that he tore the page out and pinned it up on his studio wall in Paris. Half a century later, in the 1973 book Looking at Photographs, John Szarkowski dismissed Outerbridge’s equally iconic color works as little more than “commercial illustrations.” What is it that makes this work beguiling for some and problematic for others—particularly for curators charged with distilling neat art historical narratives from complex and contradictory material?
One reason—perhaps it’s the reason—we remain fascinated with Outerbridge’s photographs is that he was both an artist and a salesman. Boldly and without apology, he explored photography’s exalted and base natures. The work veers from black-and-white to color, cerebral to carnal, a photographic equivalent of Freud’s Madonna/whore complex. Outerbridge made pictures for art and for commerce. Some are subtle, others shameless. Many were reproduced widely; more than a few were censored and some, including the work in the library’s exhibition, had never even previously been printed. Any single photograph is just as likely to pay homage to classical ideals as it is to celebrate the eclectic. The power and pull of Outerbridge’s ouevre, the reason it grabs
and holds our attention, is that it swings both ways.
It’s easy to love Outerbridge’s early and elegant black-and-white works, and to understand why the best of them fetch such extraordinary prices at auction. (Marmon Crankshaft, from 1923, brought $374,400 at Sotheby’s in 2006, well over its high estimate of $150,000.) At New York’s Clarence H. White School of Photography, where he enrolled in 1921, Outerbridge studied with Max Weber, who encouraged students to experiment with lighting, framing and odd vantage points, and to invest their images with the syncopated visual rhythms and brisk look of modernity. Planned out and even carefully diagrammed, images like Top Hat and Mufflers (1924) and H-O Box (1922) combine luxury and everyday objects alike with jazzy riffs on light and shadow. Consumerist longing and erotic desire bounce around within the borders of Outerbridge’s small and velvety platinum prints like water molecules in a pot that’s reached a boil. The physical production of these prints was just as thoughtfully calculated to seduce. Even when platinum and palladium emulsion materials became scarce in the years after World War I, Outerbridge insisted on using them to craft prints whose tonal depth and warmth trump the more meager materiality of conventional processes.