Man Ray of light on photography as art form

Ami Bouhassane (daughter of Lee Miller), poses with her mother's famous portrait. Picture: Getty
Ami Bouhassane (daughter of Lee Miller), poses with her mother's famous portrait. Picture: Getty
Share this article
Have your say

By combining Surrealist art and portrait photography, Man Ray changed the way we look at the world more than any of his contemporaries, says Duncan Macmillan

Man Ray was a well known Surrealist. Typical of his work, for instance, and one of the most familiar Surrealist images, is Disagreeable Object, a flatiron with a line of sharp tacks down the middle, an object that refutes its own purpose. Man Ray was also a photographer, however, but if that is less well known, it is perhaps because some of his photographs are so familiar that we forget to ask who made them. If Hilary Mantel could imagine the Tudor court and all its intrigue from Holbein’s extraordinary portraits, some future novelist could do the same for Paris between the wars using Man Ray’s photographs.

Man Ray. Picture: Getty

Man Ray. Picture: Getty

Born in America, Michael Emmanuel Rodnitzky, Man Ray’s father, was in the garment business, so there is a hint of autobiography in the flat iron, although the tin-tacks typically cancel the reference. He liked to cover his traces. For the same reason, he changed his name. Man Ray has a Futurist ring to it. X-rays were in the news. They seemed to open up new ways of seeing and new ways of seeing were his aim. When the new art of Modernism was shown for the first time in New York in the Armory Show of 1913, he knew he had found his destiny. Then in 1915, he met Marcel Duchamp. They became close friends, influenced each other and shared a passion for chess.

Man Ray originally took photographs simply to record his own art works, but from 1920 he began to take portrait photos to make money. Then in 1921 he moved from New York to Paris and there, through Duchamp, he met and photographed everybody who was anybody: Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Stravinsky, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas, Cocteau, Tristan Tzara and many others are all recorded in pictures that have simply become the way we know them. They are memorable not only because of who they are, however, but because of Man Ray’s skill with lighting, choice of context and so much else. Salvador Dali is lit from beneath like an apparition. Yves Tanguy’s hair is standing on end as though he had had an electric shock. Miro has a twist of rope behind him mimicking his drawing style and Picasso, at ease, head on hand, quite simply radiates power.

The earliest photograph in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition is of Duchamp. Seated and seen in profile, he seems withdrawn. Raking light shows the contours of his face as though carved in marble. Man Ray was already master of lighting. This is even more apparent in a sultry portrait he made of Duchamp a few years later in the character of his female alter ego, Rose Selavy (a lavatorial, school-boy pun.) It is a superb photograph, but while emphasising Duchamp’s apparently feminine glamour, Man Ray also undermines it. The light picks out his masculine complexion. Like the flat iron, it’s a self-refuting image.

Rather than trying to separate them, Man Ray saw photography and painting as one. Light in photography was just like paint, he said. In Paris he gave up painting altogether for a while. Duchamp approved and said he treated the camera as he did the paintbrush. Nevertheless, like the tacks defying the function of the flatiron, Man Ray later denied the value of his skill as a photographer. He wanted to be judged only by his art works. But while some are indeed memorable, his photographs are in a different order of importance.

Man Ray didn’t limit his photography to those in the public eye. He also photographed his love life, or rather he made his lovers into art. A model, Kiki de Montparnasse, was his mistress in the 1920s and the subject and inspiration of some of his most memorable pictures. In one she poses, arms hidden, shaved and lit to look exactly like the armless marble torso of the Venus de Milo, but then classical marble is brought startlingly to life by her smiling face. Suddenly all the carefully constructed barriers that had for centuries stood between the high classical ideal and the merely erotic are cheerfully overrun by Man Ray’s wit and humour.

In Violon d’Ingres, back turned and head in a turban, Kiki becomes one of Ingres’s Odalisques, but, with violin volutes stencilled on her back, the curves of her body also become those of a violin, a musical instrument for Man Ray to play. In the introduction to the catalogue, Marina Warner remarks that Kiki and indeed women in general were “a hobby or a pastime for men in those unenlightened times.” Man Ray also makes a joke against himself, however. Ingres thought his violin more important than his painting, just as Man Ray thought his painting more important than his photography.

Nevertheless, however unenlightened they are, in such pictures the erotic goes mainstream. This is where modern attitudes to sex and its imagery start to become universal in the way that is now so familiar. We can’t say that Man Ray alone was responsible, but his wit and lightness of touch and the sheer beauty of his images made them acceptable in a quite new way. His art also had a far deeper reach than that of any of his contemporaries, however, because he was already in the mass media. His portraits of the avant garde were published in glamour magazines like Vogue and Vanity Fair. He did fashion shoots for them too that were just as inventive and adventurous. A model in a shimmering Lucien Lelong gown poses in a wheelbarrow. Another sits with her dress draped over her open legs in a way that ladies shouldn’t. Such was his influence that such mildly transgressive images are now the clichés of fashion photography.

Man Ray’s greatest muse was fellow American Lee Miller, who became his assistant in 1929. They stayed together till 1932 and when she left him he photographed himself with gun to his head and a rope round his neck. (She of course went on to become a major photographer herself.) Her beauty inspired some of his most memorable photographs. In Triptych she stands at a window, naked to the waist, lit through a net curtain. In another picture of surpassing beauty her head is isolated in pure profile surrounded by a dark halo that transfigures it. He and Lee Miller discovered this effect when accidentally she opened the door of the dark room. He called it solarisation and also exploited it in a striking self-portrait. Other experiments included colour transparencies painted from behind to give miniature portraits of Yves Montand, Juliet Greco and others a depth and richness which is extraordinary.

During the War, Man Ray moved to Hollywood. For a while he gave up photography altogether, but then, needing money, he returned to it to produce memorable pictures of stars like Ava Gardner. The last picture in the exhibition, however, is a hauntingly beautiful portrait of Catherine Deneuve for the cover of the Sunday Times magazine in 1968. As well as of the star, the picture is a kind of self-portrait of the artist for she is surrounded by his art works, leaning on a chess board, his favourite game, and even wearing spiral earrings he designed. So he declares himself at once artist and photographer. Because of the way those two sides of his work reinforced each other, it has penetrated our daily lives to shape the way we see more than that of almost any of his contemporaries.

• Man Ray Portraits is at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, until 22 September.