Interest in Outerbridge revived in the 1970s after a Los Angeles photo dealer bought most of his extant prints, and the reproduction rights to them, from Outerbridge’s widow. The timing was right: a viable market for photography was percolating, and by mid-decade color photography—no longer a novelty, but an everyday reality for a new generation of baby-boomer photographers and artists—was finally beginning to attract attention, if not quite full acceptance, among the more conservative members of the art photography community. In America’s increasingly image-driven culture, and following Pop art’s appropriation of the vocabulary of mass media, the taint associated with color and commercial photography in the 1950s and ’60s began to fall away. You can see Outerbridge’s legacy in work as diverse as David Lynch’s lurid visuals in the film Blue Velvet, Thomas Demand’s meticulously fabricated tableaux and Loretta Lux’s sweetly hued but creepy portraits of children.
These days, with Outerbridge’s work scattered throughout private and museum collections around the world, exhibitions are rare. When they do occur, it’s a welcome opportunity to re-experience the work’s craftsmanship, audacity and impact. Seen in the midst of the 21st century’s first global economic crisis, these photographs from the worst boom-and-bust cycle of the last century still sizzle. The elegant early images and the more raucous color work that followed indicate how adept Outerbridge was at creating and reflecting desire. No wonder we can’t stop looking.
1 Paul Outerbridge, Photographing in Color, New York, Random House, 1940, p. 55.
2 Paul Martineau, Paul Outerbridge: Command Performance, Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, 2009, p. 5. 3 Outerbridge, p. 48.
"Paul Outerbridge: Command Performance," curated by Paul Martineau, was on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Mar. 31-Aug. 9, and was accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue. "Paul Outerbridge: New Color Photographs from Mexico and California, 1948-1955," curated by William A. Ewing, Graham Howe and Philip Prodger, appeared at the Los Angeles Public Library, Mar. 28-June 28.
Marvin Heiferman is curator of "click! photography changes everything" (www.click.si.edu), a Smithsonian
Photography Initiative project.