Man Ray: Portraits

On the occasion of a traveling exhibition, Diana Stoll meditates on Man Ray’s portraits.

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Man Ray, Solarized Portrait of Lee Miller, ca. 1929. The Penrose Collection; courtesy the Lee Miller Archives.

In his 1963 autobiography, Man Ray considers his long career and observes: “I photographed as I painted, transforming the subject as a painter would—idealizing or deforming as freely as does a painter.” This was a pragmatic freedom, which this versatile artist exerted also in his films and sculptural objects, indeed throughout his remarkably influential body of work.

Man Ray: Portraits, organized by Terence Pepper, curator of photographs at London’s National Portrait Gallery, is the first museum exhibition to focus on the artist’s photographic portraits, which constitute a hefty share of his creative output. With more than one hundred fifty prints, the show is divided into chronological segments that follow Man Ray’s career from 1916 to 1968, from New York to Paris to Hollywood and back, and from the artist’s earliest Dada-inflected experiments to images of society figures and movie stars, playful masqueraders, and a legion of artists, friends, and lovers.

Born Emmanuel Radnitzky in 1890, brought up in Brooklyn, Man Ray was eighteen and a student of painting when he first found his way to Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery, where he encountered the work of many of the most important and radical artists and photographers of the era. In 1915 he and Marcel Duchamp struck up a friendship that would lead to countless collaborations over the years, including many photographs by Man Ray of the French troublemaker in different guises—among those in the Portraits show are a 1916 image of Duchamp seated in a wicker chair, very much the upright, pensive young artist; the tiny, well-known shot of the back of his head shaved to reveal a shooting star; and a classic rendering of the mysterious and eternally straight-faced travesti known as Rrose Sélavy.

Man Ray left the United States in 1921 (complaining to his friend Tristan Tzara: “Dada cannot live in New York”)—following Duchamp and irresistibly drawn to what was then the vertex of the artistic universe: Paris. There his circle of acquaintances grew over the following two decades to include a stunning host of luminaries, and the Portraits exhibition is understandably weighted toward this period. Among the celestial litany featured here: Antonin Artaud, André Breton, Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dalí, Peggy Guggenheim, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Dora Maar, Henri Matisse, Arnold Schönberg, Igor Stravinsky, and the full panoply of Surrealists, whose ranks Man Ray joined. (Particularly striking is the Johnny-Rotten-eyed Yves Tanguy, photographed in 1929.) The model Kiki de Montparnasse was Man Ray’s companion through most of the 1920s and the subject of hundreds of his photographs, including what may be his most famous, Le Violon d’Ingres (1924), in which her curvaceous back is transmogrified into a cello. (The inclusion of this and a few unnamed nudes in the exhibition may stretch the notion of “portraiture,” but the show’s rhythm is enhanced by their presence.)

Many of Man Ray’s portraits were made on commission for journals, both avant-garde (New York Dada, Minotaure, Cahiers d’art) and mainstream (Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar, even Ladies’ Home Journal). Pepper examines the artist’s interactions with these outlets in his catalog essay, and the exhibition sheds light on the degree of experimentation that was not only tolerated but apparently invited back then in the pages of even the most popular magazines. The forward-thinking editor of Vanity Fair, Frank Crowninshield, for example, published several of Man Ray’s innovative works in the early 1920s—among them a portrait of society maven Luisa Casati, her massive kohl-rimmed eyes blurred and doubled by a mistaken exposure (1922); the stolid Gertrude Stein at home in her Paris salon (1922); and a natty Pablo Picasso, looking into the lens with fathomless intelligence (1923). (Crowninshield also featured the artist’s rayographs—“A New Method of Realizing the Artistic Possibilities of Photography”—in 1922.) For Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar Man Ray provided society portraits, images of the literati (Virginia Woolf, the Sitwells, a dour Aldous Huxley), and performers (including the seductive 1926 image of cross-dresser Barbette, with dark bee-stung lips), as well as never-quite-conventional fashion shots. For a time, according to the artist’s biographer Neil Baldwin, “it was considered obligatory to stop in Man Ray’s studio and have yourself ‘done’ by him.”

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Man Ray, Babette, 1926. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

The American model-turned-photographer Lee Miller came into Man Ray’s life in 1929 and made an indelible mark. She sought him out as a mentor in photography, and soon they became lovers. Together—through accident and experiment—they discovered the process of photographic solarization, which Man Ray would put to use in some of his best-known images, including the magnificent ca. 1929 profile portrait of Miller that serves as this exhibition’s centerpiece. His other photographs of Miller are by turns tender, elegant, creepy (particularly a 1931 picture of her sitting like a child on her stone-faced father’s lap), and profoundly sensuous. In a trio of images from 1930 she stands by a window, the dappled light streaming through it onto her half-naked body in an undulating grid. Even in this most classical of modes—the study of the female nude—Man Ray’s eye is restlessly inventive.

The artist moved to Hollywood in 1940 and stayed for a decade; he was surprised and disappointed that in the United States his reputation was based largely on photography alone—his work in painting, sculpture, and film had received far less attention. Many of his subjects from this period (Ava Gardner, Paulette Goddard, Dolores del Rio) are shown with the whipped-creamy, disaffected glam that was characteristic of the time and place. It seems clear that Man Ray was losing interest, or at least some of the visual potency that had energized his earlier images. He returned to Paris in 1951 and for the rest of his life focused more on painting than photography.

But the Portraits exhibition attests to the primacy of photography in Man Ray’s career. It was a medium that—particularly in the 1920s and ’30s, when he was at the height of his imaginative powers—allowed him great leeway, perhaps precisely because it had not yet been deemed one of the Lofty Arts. A supremely inquisitive and multitalented artist, in his photographic portraits Man Ray was not above engaging with editorial or fashionable conventions of his day—conventions that, in turn, were still capable of being shaped by him and others. He also had the temerity to toss protocol aside when the occasion was right, to “transform the subject,” blazing a path that was new, and entirely his own.

Man Ray: Portraits was presented at the National Portrait Gallery, London, February 7–May 27, 2013; it is on view at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, through September 22; and will be on view at the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, October 14–January 19, 2014.

Diana C. Stoll is a writer and editor based in North Carolina.