04/25/2013 11:23 am ET Updated Jun 24, 2013

Man Ray Portraits

Growing up in Brooklyn as the son of a Russian immigrant factory worker, Emmanuel Radnitzky stole tubes of paint from a local art supply store, but had no remorse because of the nobility of the cause: "I consider the painting of a picture the acme of human accomplishment." Decades later, having shortened his name to Man Ray, his reverence for painting remained: "the conviction still persists." In contrast, he claimed to have little respect for photography: "I wasn't interested in photography, I never was, as an artist." Ironically, Man Ray would never be more than a minor painter, but he became one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century.


Man Ray, Self-portrait with Camera (1932). Image courtesy of The Getty Museum collection.

Man Ray began making photographs in New York in 1915, as a struggling 25-year-old painter. He did this initially merely to document his paintings, but he quickly mastered the techniques, and soon began to earn money by taking portraits. His education in photography was advanced by visits to Alfred Stieglitz's art gallery; he was impressed that Stieglitz's photographs "were free of anecdote and cheap sentiment."


Man Ray, Le Violon d'Ingres (1924). Image courtesy of The Getty Museum collection.

Also in 1915, the art collector Walter Arensberg introduced Man Ray to a young French visitor, Marcel Duchamp. Although Man Ray spoke no French, and Duchamp no English, the two immediately hit it off: "I brought out a couple of old tennis rackets, and a ball which we batted back and forth without any net...I called the strokes to make conversation: fifteen, thirty, forty, love, to which he replied each time with the same word: yes." The two artists would be close friends for more than 50 years, until Duchamp's death in 1968. It was appropriate that they would begin their friendship by playing tennis without a net, for Duchamp, perhaps the most iconoclastic and subversive of modern conceptual innovators, would consistently support Man Ray's violations of artistic conventions.


Man Ray, Erotique Voilée (portrait of Meret Oppenheim), 1933. Image courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, Paris.

In 1921, Man Ray fulfilled a childhood dream by going to Paris, where Duchamp's introductions quickly established him as a member of both the Dada and Surrealist movements. For the next two decades, Man Ray earned a living in Paris as a professional photographer: in his own, justifiable, description, during this time he was "an official recorder of events and personalities." His portraits of this time are the subject of the current exhibition at London's National Portrait Gallery.


Man Ray, Portrait of James Joyce (1922). Image courtesy of The Getty Museum collection.

Paris was still the center of the western art world between the two world wars, and Man Ray was its photographer. What is striking throughout Man Ray Portraits is the realization of the extent to which we have seen this society through Man Ray's eyes, and lens. Not only are the people in his photographs familiar, but so are the images: his portraits of Picasso, Braque, Duchamp, Hemingway, Joyce, Breton, Schoenberg, Stein, and dozens of other luminaries are among the most celebrated and familiar images of these figures.


Man Ray, Portrait of Ernest Hemingway (1924). Image courtesy of the Saul Gallery, New York.

The exhibition also reveals a change over time in the artistry of Man Ray. In the 1920s, Man Ray lived in a serious world. His self-portraits show him looking intently into the distance, and his sitters looking equally intently into his camera. Only his model and lover, Kiki, smiles - shyly from under her hat in a café, or in pleasure in a nude portrait at the beach. Man Ray's greatest portraits date from this decade, as does his single greatest photograph, Le Violon d'Ingres. In the latter, both Kiki's pose and her turban were references to the central figure in one of the most famous paintings of J.A.D. Ingres, Le Bain Turc. The title added enigma. Ingres was so avid an amateur violinist that even today "violon d'Ingres" is a French expression for "hobby." The elegant and imaginative visual quotation of earlier art, and the symbolism added by the title, made Le Violon d'Ingres a classic conceptual work. The resemblance of the shape of Kiki's back to a violin, with the added f-holes that highlighted this, also made it a classic Surrealist work.


Man Ray, Nude portrait of Lee Miller (1929). Image courtesy of The Huffington Post.

For Man Ray's portraits, the late '20s and the '30s brought greater theatricality and playfulness. Man Ray and his assistant Lee Miller discovered solarization in 1929, and Man Ray used this new process to make effects of light more prominent in his pictures. Miller's dramatic beauty seems to have challenged Man Ray to place her in dramatic poses, with strong contrasts of light and shadow emphasizing her elegance and grace. Salvador Dali was lighted from below, like a circus magician. The beautiful Surrealist Meret Oppenheim was photographed in the nude, smeared with black ink from an etching press.


Man Ray, Portrait of Salvador Dali (1929). Image courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

But what was lost in Man Ray's work of the '30s was much of its earlier intensity. And this progression continued in the '40s, when Man Ray returned to the US and became a Hollywood photographer. Movie stars came to Man Ray's studio, and he made beautiful photographs of them. But he was no longer making works of art that would serve as historical documents.


Man Ray, Portrait of Dolores del Río (ca. 1940). Image courtesy of The Getty Museum collection.

Although Man Ray affected to disdain photography, his extensive formal experiments clearly reveal his engagement with photography as an art. He was also proud of having photographed virtually every important member of Paris' art world during his time there. Why was he a great portrait photographer?


Man Ray, Portrait of Pablo Picasso (1934). Image courtesy of The Getty Museum collection.

His technique was distinctive, but not exceptional. He believed in working quickly, without instructing the sitter, to make his portraits appear natural. He had no interest in expensive or complex technology, and compared cameras to typewriters. He used soft, rough paper for his prints, and overexposed his portraits, in the belief that middle tones and soft grays were "kind to the face." But his success as a portrait photographer may have stemmed from a different source: perhaps the reason is that he was a great artist. Portrait photography depends on a relationship between the photographer and the subject. What Man Ray's portraits suggest is that the respect of the sitter for the photographer can be as important for the final image as that of the photographer for the sitter. It was during the 1920s that Man Ray was at his peak as a conceptual innovator, producing work that included the Rayographs and Le Violon d'Ingres, and the great artists who sat for him during this period may have understood that they themselves were equally in the presence of a great artist.


Marlene Dumas, Portrait of Amy Winehouse (2011). Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London

As a bonus, visitors to the Man Ray exhibition walk past a recent acquisition of the National Portrait Gallery, a stunning small portrait of Amy Winehouse painted by Marlene Dumas. Dumas is an admirer of Man Ray as well as of Winehouse, and this painting based on photographs serves as an elegant tribute not only to the genius of Winehouse, but also to the contribution of Man Ray to keeping portraiture alive as an art form of the modern era. Man Ray once declared that he would photograph an idea rather than an object, and a dream rather than an idea. It is difficult to believe that Man Ray, the great photographer who wanted to be a great painter, would not have been envious of Dumas' remarkable achievement in using paint to create this ghostly dream image of a great singer.

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Get your weekly dose of books, film and culture.