In 1922, Vanity Fair magazine printed a photograph that Marcel Duchamp later cut out and pinned to a wall in his studio. It was a simple, yet surprisingly impactful image: a white men’s collar shaped into a letter ‘C’, laid over a black and white checkerboard. The photographer behind the picture was Paul Outerbridge, who was soon to become the talk of the town.
Self-Portrait with Paula, c. 1927 by Paul Outerbridge, Jr. | G. Ray Hawkins Gallery, Beverly Hills, CA
Both gentlemen met in Paris a couple years later. Paul Outerbridge (1896-1958), a New Yorker, came to France in a mist of fame worthy of an avant-garde creator, and he quickly integrated with the local artistic community, which included characters like Man ray and Pablo Picasso among others. The American worked with black and white at the time. His skill of composing and lighting objects, which he polished in his youth while assisting a theater scenographer, and later as a student at The Clarence H. White School of Modern Photography, allowed him to create still-life photography of the highest quality. His images – which align with the abstract art movement – such as Still-life (Cheese and crackers), 1922, Musical Semi-Abstraction, 1924, or The Triumph of the Egg, 1932, were acknowledged and presented at worldly galleries in this period.
This business cycle continued after his permanent return to the United States. In the 30’, the American had a reputation of ‘the most well-paid commercial photographer’ in New York. His recipe for success? To shoot in a way that only a few others did at the time – in colour. Outerbridge specialized himself in creating vibrant prints using the cabro process method, which, although very time-consuming (in order to get one close-up you one had to sacrifice at least a couple of hours) allowed for a lasting image of an extraordinary intensity of colour. Additionally, the American wasn’t just a practitioner: he wrote press articles about the applied method, and in 1941 he published a textbook titled Photographing in Color.
Outerbridge’s juicy commercial photographs presented genre scenes and offbeat still-lifes (e.g.: The Kitchen Table, 1935, Avocado Pears, 1935, czy Images de Deauville, 1936). Simultaneously, the artist created portraits and bold – for the times – female nudes, which were critiqued by the more conservative environments. As the 30’ came to an end, when coloured film became more popular on the market, Outerbridge started to lose his upper-hand over the competition. In the end, he settled down in California, where he continued photographing until his death in 1958. After his passing, the world of art had forgotten about the American creator. But it brought him back in the late 70’, once coloured photography was, fortunately, no longer considered passé at galleries.