Famous for his Surrealist and Dadaist photographs of erie solarised figures and strange ‘Ray-o-graphed’ objects, you don’t immediately associate Man Ray with journalism, fashion photography or recording and cataloging works of art. However these facets of his photographic career made up the larger portion of his life's work. Just like his famous double exposures Man Ray’s photographs led a double life; the artistic and surreal vs the cataloging and documentary. Quite separate from his artistic work this body of straightforward pictorial recordings and portraits provide something of a window into the cultural world of his time. It is this body of work that makes up the larger part of the Man Ray Portraits exhibition. There are however a large number of famous Surrealist works hanging among them too. Works like his solarised Man Ray Self-Portrait with Camera 1932 and his infamous Le Violon d’Ingres 1924; a photograph of his lover Kiki de Montparnasse with violin f holes on her back, photogrammed into the image during the developing process.
This unprecedented collection of his life's work spans several rooms set out chronologically, each section corresponding with where he was working at the time as he flitted back and forth between Paris and New York (with one section devoted to his ten years in Hollywood). Reminiscent of a hall of fame, the exhibition walls are lined with artists, film starlets, writers, musicians, influential people from the fashion and art worlds as well as creatives that shaped the culture of the time – Picasso, Dali, Matisse, Miro, Peggy Guggenheim, Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Channel and Ernest Hemingway were all captured by Man Ray’s lens. Gertrude Stein made him her official photographer. Marcel Duchamp was a lifelong friend and responsible for introducing Man Ray to the Dada group at café Certá when he first set foot in Paris.The exhibition commences with a photograph of the back of Duchamp’s head, a star shaved into it and contains many pictures of the artist including one of him as his female alter-ego Belle Ha Leine 1921.
The show documents several landmark events in Man Ray’s career, for example his development of Solarisation with photographer and model Lee Miller in the early 1930‘s and his first colour photograph Genica Athanasion 1933. Tiny test images are also present, sporting crop boxes drawn on by Man Ray’s own hand in pen. They give insight into his creative process, while quotes and stories from Man Ray himself give insight into their context; the events and goings on surrounding his work. One such anecdote explains the presence of rope in the background of his portrait Joan Miro 1936, which references an occasion on which the artist Max Ernest tied a rope round Miro’s neck. Ernest then threatened to hang him by it if he didn’t give an opinion on the heated discussion taking place, Man Ray recalls that despite the threat Miro remained silent.
The unique surrealist style of Man Ray’s photography is evident even in some of his commercial portraits and he enjoyed wide recognition for his work which appeared in fashion magazines and influential newspapers alike. Publications such as Vogue, Vanity Fair, Harpers Bazaar, and Time Magazine sought his photography, often for their covers. Picasso adored the photograph Dora Maar 1936 that Man Ray took of his lover, so much so that Man Ray said he ‘traded me one of his works for this portrait’.
Not just a photographer, Man Ray originally took up the camera to catalogue his art and sculpture. He also designed objects such as his surrealist chess set and smoking device, wrote books, made films and even turned to painting for ten years. The exhibition encompasses all of these aspects of the predominantly photographic artist with images of his creations, stills from his films, copies of his books and even one of Man Ray’s own lithographs. In the same way that Man Ray cataloged and recorded the cultural world of his generation, this exhibition has gathered and curated this immense body of work, accurately relaying the life, work and achievements of this iconic photographer and artist.
Words Kirsty Sapsford
Junior Arts Editor
Man Ray Portraits is taking place at the National Portrait Gallery just off Trafalgar Square until 27th May. For more information and to book tickets visit their website at npg.org.uk.