In Association with

Masters of Photography
Paul Outerbridge

Text from Jeannine Fiedler, "Paul Outerbridge, Jr" (Schirmer/Mosel Munich)


The Olfactory Nude

During the centuries-long process of the growth of civilization, the sense of smell has more and more been excluded as something base and primitive. Although it is the primary mediator of sense impressions from our immediate vicinity, it is rarely activated during the reception of impressions from the fine arts, the gigantic flood of printed media, or even in the contemporary electronic entertainment industry. Now that the mechanical reproduction of sterile worlds of objects and images has become possible, the sense of sight, considered by Kant to be the noblest, has become the exclusive transmitter of perceptions from an environment in which visual stimuli are rampant. At the beginning of the 1930s, Outerbridge stood on the verge of the era of color reproduction - in which familiar images today range from micro-organisms to the whole of the blue planet Earth - and he was working with relatively primitive techniques of color processing. He decided to abandon the realm of black-and-white photography, which he had come to find tedious, and move forward to face the challenges of color photography. The spectrum of the gray scale associated with black-and-white photography even today, however, is associated with an element of artificiality and alienation, since it is simply an unavoidable fact that we do see and experience the world in color. In the genre of nude photography, this meant that the depiction of the human body lost its initial shock, civilization's embarrassment over naked skin, as it was mercifully concealed behind a gray veil. Outerbridge's nudes, in brilliant color reproduction and with a drastic, hitherto unparalleled realism, were seen by an American public firmly anchored in its Puritan foundations. For a society that valued ascetic ideals, it was a shock, and it caused a scandal that pushed Outerbridge, till then a successful photographer, into the commercial wilderness and ultimately meant the end of his career as a photographer.

The body, referred to by Paul Valéry as "the unique, the true, the eternal, the perfect, the insurmountable reference system", was simply terra incognita to John Doe, the average American citizen at the end of Prohibition (which also had its origins in efforts by bigoted women's associations to repress sensuality). And now came Outerbridge's women: nude photographs in color that have a haptic quality that makes the models' skin almost touchable; the eye can feel its way along delicate arterial branches under an alabaster sheen; shaved montes veneris and pudenda without the slightest retouching; delicate, pink hollows and folds - the scent of women streams from the photographs, affronting the plain soul of every good American. But for an observer prepared to go "wandering," it was an "adventure of the epidermis," exciting senses other than that of sight.

From Dandy to Playboy

"For everyone, life is an act of the body,"' as Valéry also wrote. During Outerbridge's black-and-white period in the "Golden Twenties," he produced a famous self-portrait in which he is dressed up in all the insignia of a dandy, at the same time distorting these symbols to make them grotesque - the top hat worn above a mask resembling racing driver's or diver's goggles, with an Adolphe Menjou mustache, stand-up collar, a dickey inside his tuxedo and the obligatory (canary yellow?) Baudelairean glove. Outerbridge left all the traditional views of the nude behind. From the powdered, shimmering boudoirs of the bohemian world the dandy entered the cool, satin glitter of Art Déco salons, building one himself in his studio in Nyack in upstate New York. It was here that he began his dialogue with the model he preferred - the female. The usual division of roles between the one taking photographs and the object (of desire) becomes obsolete. It is not clear who is playing with whom here. Or perhaps the photographer is simply being ignored by his model, who is stretching like Danaé in a kind of lascivious absentmindedness. Whether she is leaning against pillars or walls, looking contentedly at her image in the mirror while the male idol Clark Gable, hidden behind the mirror, shrinks to insignificance, whether she touches herself or enters into dialogue with the observer/photographer, always conscious of her own body, her own beauty - the women in Outerbridge's nudes never allow themselves to be used. This balance, which especially in this genre often tips over to women's disadvantage into a pornographic commercialization that stamps the human body with the quality of a commodity, seems not yet to be threatened here. With an absolute will to achieve structure and an obvious aesthetic pleasure on the photographer's part, and on the part of the model an equally pleasurable experience of her own body, the observer is shown not merely a "nude," but an extraordinary equilibrium of harmonious understanding. A comparable harmony between the model and the photographer is seen in E. J. Bellocq's Storyville Portraits, in which New Orleans prostitutes gaze into the camera in a similarly relaxed and self-aware way.

This establishment of a "who is being mirrored by whom?" problem is of course present as a classically psychological Narcissus motif in Outerbridge's nudes as well. But of greater significance for the interpretation of his work is the element of fetishism in it, a point we will return to below. For Outerbridge, the interest in creating an image of the human body lies in a form of the Narcissus complex, which is common to all of humanity. Julia Kristeva asserts that the mythical Narcissus has a tremendous affinity for modern humanity: "He breaks with the antique world because he makes himself the origin of seeing, and seeks the other facing him as the product of his own seeing. In this he discovers that this image is not another, but that he himself has presented it, that the other is a self-representation. In this way, and in a manner opposed to that of mysticism, Narcissus discovers in pain and in death the constitutive alienation of his own image."

A new self-awareness among women in the USA during the 1930s grew out of their increasing acceptance in the working world. Their growing share in the economic life of crisis-ridden New Deal America also encouraged their emancipation. Entertainers such as Mae West and Jean Harlow, however, with their superb, self-ironic escapades, soon had their openly erotic and even vicious statements clamped down on by the reactionary censorship of the Hays Office. The "wenches" were not to get above themselves. A parade of Hollywood divas was manufactured, and although a certain sarcastic touch could still occasionally be noted as a leftover from the earlier sexual toughness, after 1933 the "battle of the sexes" was reduced to squabbles between couples. Nevertheless, the verbal exchanges between the mixed-sex screwballs in the later comedies have never been matched in their rhetorical brilliance. What Hollywood, under official instructions, had to wrap up more subtly for prudish America continued to be dreamt about in the movie theaters; and in Outerbridge's studio on the east coast it was extrapolated into flesh and blood.

A certain "clean" or cosmetic appearance in his photographs is, on the one hand, inevitable in color photography; on the other hand, it corresponds to an aesthetics that was dominant in the USA between the wars. It is an aesthetics which, always oriented towards sales strategies, was symbiotically absorbed into advertising. In accordance with socially imposed restrictions, the naked body was frowned on; but basic capitalist attitudes and - with relaxing moral standards - ever more permissive behavior patterns in social interactions led to more and more skin appearing in advertising images. In Vargas's streamlined, almost sexless pin-ups, this aesthetic ideal reached its ultimate refinement in relation to the female body.

In the same period, photographers such as Josef Sudek or André Kertész were working on abstract, surreal distortions of their nudes, and Man Ray decorated his solarized models with an ethereal second "photoskin" and produced weightless torsos that seem to be from another world. But all of them remained bound to a tradition of nude photography that attempts to elevate the body, to transcend it, to deprive it of its nudity. It would have been unthinkable for these representatives of a black-and-white ideology to suddenly start working in color. For his time, Outerbridge was too advanced to be able to find broad public acceptance for his nude studies; his presentation of the flesh was too vivid and, like nineteenth-century erotic images, was suspected of being indecent. He produced his work for a small group of potential clients who even then were prepared to pay four-figure sums for the valuable prints.

Despite all the moral indignation and lack of understanding for Outerbridge's art during the 1930s, his brilliant realism ironically opened the way for the populist, trivial, and vulgar marketing of the female body: society was overtaken by its own lewdness. In 1953, little more than fifteen years after the first color nudes and during the mid-century period of restoration, Hugh Hefner was to start his victory march among frustrated husbands all over the world with his idea for an ever-available, unresisting Eve, shining and wrinkle-free. Where models with minds of their own took an active share in the production of fantasies (their own or others') in Outerbridge's work, Playboy degraded women into passive sex kittens. The witty, challenging aggressiveness of the screwballs and of Outerbridge's women, aware of their own bodies, was completely extinguished in the Eisenhower decade, which was fixated on traditional values: what remained were fantasies produced by men for men that excluded the female imago and alienated women from their own desires. Hefner exploited conditioned male perceptions to the utmost, using the slogan of American sales strategy "easy to consume." The blank spaces left by Outerbridge, places in which playful symbolism and fetishistic settings can release the observer's imagination, were steamrollered by the banal Playboy aesthetics. As early as 1939, the American critic Clement Greenberg published his precise definition of the "substitute culture" and kitsch that only reached its full development after the Second World War and in newly established markets in a consumer society hungry for new print media. Television was still a rare commodity. "Kitsch, using for raw material the debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture, welcomes and cultivates this insensibility. It is the source of its profits. Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money - not even their time."


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