For Students

Past Exhibitions: 2008

Paul Outerbridge: Color Photographs from Mexico and California, the 1950s

June 14–September 7, 2008

In 1943, after a decade of pioneering work in color photography, American photographer Paul Outerbridge (1896-1958) moved to Southern California. He settled in Laguna Beach, a seaside town and an artists’ haven just two hours north of the Mexican border. In the tradition of Edward Weston, Paul Strand, Anton Bruehl, and Henri Cartier-Bresson, all of whom made significant photographic forays into Mexico and who also photographed in California, Outerbridge visited the seaport towns along California’s coastline and Mexico’s Baja peninsula making a new kind of color photograph that show virtuosic use of form, color and atmosphere from vernacular. These recently printed 1950s Kodachrome transparencies demonstrate that Paul Outerbridge anticipated the work of William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Joel Meyerowitz and others who, in the mid-1970s are credited with codifying “the New Color” in photography. This last and exemplary body of work by one of America’s greatest Modernist masters of the 1920s and 30s shows us that new ways of seeing can be accomplished simply by seeing everyday subjects in a different way.

This exhibition has been organized and circulated by Curatorial Assistance Traveling Exhibitions (CATE), Pasadena, California.

The Ann Arbor presentation is made possible in part by the University of Michigan Health System and Ernestine and Herbert Ruben.






Street Sweeper, Mexico

Paul Outerbridge
Street Sweeper, Mexico
c. 1950
Copyright 2008 Graham Howe



Docks, Mazatlan, Mexico

Paul Outerbridge
Docks, Mazatlan, Mexico
c. 1950
Copyright 2008 Graham Howe



Gas Station, Mexico

Paul Outerbridge
Gas Station, Mexico
c. 1950
Copyright 2008 Graham Howe



Laguna Beach, California (detail)

Paul Outerbridge
Laguna Beach, California (detail)
c. 1950
Copyright 2008 Graham Howe



Self-portrait on lounge, oceanside resort, California

Paul Outerbridge
Self-portrait on lounge, oceanside resort, California
c. 1950
Copyright 2008 Graham Howe



Party, Mexico (detail)

Paul Outerbridge
Party, Mexico (detail)
c. 1950
Copyright 2008 Graham Howe





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 lifes during the 1930s while he pursued a successful career as a commercial photographer in New York. (The tri-color carbro process, which was largely replaced by the Cibachrome process in the mid-1950s, is an exacting technique for producing a finished image by layering three separate negatives, each containing either yellow, magenta, or cyan pigment.) In his teens, Overbridge worked as an illustrator and stage set designer, and after being introduced to photography in the United States Army, enrolled at Columbia University to study the medium. His work very quickly thereafter began appearing in such magazines as Vanity Fair and Vogue.

Works by Outerbridge were included in a 1937 exhibition of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, and in the years following was a much-published writer on the topic of color photography. In the 1940s, prompted by a scandal related to his full-color erotic photographs, Outerbridge retired from commercial work and left New York for California, eventually settling in Laguna Beach. Little is known of his later work, however the recently rediscovered images presented in this exhibition, which were printed from transparencies he produced in the eight years before his death in 1958, leave little doubt that Outerbridge fully understood the possibilities inherent in color photography even in these early years of the medium. Many feel that this work presages the style and imagery of color photographers working a full quarter of a century later.

Employing a 35 mm camera rather than the large-format equipment of his studio work, 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 kinetic world of the street. Confronted with this new landscape, viewed through the new spectrum of color, Outerbridge depicted the people and places from his adopted Southern California, and from the Mexican towns just south of the border, with great dignity and sensitivity. 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, frequenting 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, and the brightly colored topography.

Among the scenes Outerbridge etched onto film are carnival carriages with passengers dressed 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 by a gas station whose painted-red details add further 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 in this body of work the artist has given in to expressions of pure color and form as seen through the lens—colors that become almost like living characters in their vitality and individuality.

By bringing to light this until-now undiscovered and unrecognized sequence of photographs, Paul Outerbridge: Color Photographs from California and Mexico, Circa 1950 helps to account for a lost chapter of photographic history and introduces to a broader public a largely unheralded visionary of early color photography.

Paul Outerbridge: Color Photographs from Califoria and Mexico, Circa 1950 is organized and circulated by Curatorial Assistance Traveling Exhibitions (CATE). The Ann Arbor presentation is made possible in part by The University of Michigan Health System.