Curated by William Ewing and Phillip Prodger
As one of America’s earliest masters of color photography, Paul Outerbridge established his reputation by making virtuoso carbro-color prints of nudes and still-lives in the 1930s. As pictures, they are as brilliant and innovative today as when they earned their place as classics in the history of photography.
Outerbridge left New York in the 1940s, choosing to settle in California, and eventually taking up residency in the Mediterranean-style ocean side town of Laguna Beach. Little is known of Outerbridge’s last body of work in the 8 years preceding his death in 1958. But Outerbridge’s recently printed transparencies from the 1950s affirms that he fully understood the possibilities inherent in color photography despite it being the early days of its use in photographic art. Outerbridge went on to make a body of work that presaged the style and imagery of color photographers working a full quarter of a century later.
Employing a 35mm camera rather than the large-format equipment of the studio, Outerbridge captured vivid pictures while on the fly. His images were composed using the same precision of form and color that characterized his 1930s studio work, but, in this series, Outerbridge applied his earlier techniques to the energetic world of the street. This was a new landscape for Outerbridge, who, seeing in the new spectrum of color, depicted the people and places from his adopted Southern California, and, with great relish and sensitivity, from the Mexican towns just south of the border. In the tradition of such photographers as Edward Weston, Paul Strand, Anton Bruehl, and Henri Cartier-Bresson, all of whom made significant photographic forays into Mexico, Outerbridge ventured south from Laguna. In his 1949 black Cadillac, Outerbridge frequented the seaport towns along the Baja peninsula. One of his favorite stops was Mazatlan, on Mexico’s western coast, where he took particular pleasure in surveying the urban architecture, absorbing—and documenting—the city streets teeming with people, the brightly colored topography.
Among the scenes Outerbridge etched onto film: carnival carriages with passengers dressed and bound for a grand party; a group of fashionable men relaxing in an outdoor hotel lobby drinking Cokes and beer while a small orchestra plays on in the afternoon sun; and a lone girl in a lime-green dress and white sweater walking past a gas station whose painted-red details add vibrant flourishes to the scene. Outerbridge was keenly aware that the beauty of everyday objects was also tied to the larger meanings anchored in the social landscape, but he cared less for this fact than for the expression of pure color and form as seen through and by the lens.
These extraordinary pictures recall the 1970s photographs of William Eggleston and Stephen Shore, who strove to codify these same formal and subjective aesthetics into a bold definition of the new color vocabulary. Paul Outerbridge: New Color Photographs from California and Mexico will bring a heretofore undiscovered and unrecognized sequence of photographs that bridges the formal gap between the past and the present. Outerbridge’s visionary handling of color confirmed that he had instinctively known the potential of the color medium, and, luckily for us, he created an astounding body of photographs to prove it.
Publication: Paul Outerbridge: New Color Photographs (Nazraeli, 2009)
NUMBER OF WORKS:
35 prints (carbro color and digital pigment)
16 x 20 and 20 x 16 inches (40 x 50 and 50 x 40 cm)
Approximately 110 linear feet (33.5 linear meters)