I was initially excited by this exhibition but after a brief look through the catalogue began to feel that this was an exhibition of pictures of important people rather than a photographic exhibition; one might expect this from the National Portrait Gallery, an institution that is geared to recording the presence of the famous and the eminent.
After saying goodbye to a friend with whom I had had lunch and seen the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize 2013, I went down to the other end of the National Portrait Gallery to see the ticketed Man Ray exhibition; it was a sunday afternoon and quite crowded when I entered but the gallery slowly emptied and before leaving I was able to walk around quickly taking it all in together. However, my main impression of the exhibition was from certain works that struck me.
Man Ray started photography as a way to copy his own art work; it developed partly by accident when his partner, Lee Millar who also became a well known photographer, opened the door in his darkroom resulting in the “solarising” of a print, an error that Man Ray liked and further developed. Some of his most well known solarisations were made of Lee Millar.
The exhibition consists of portraits by Man Ray, the National Portrait Gallery being the location of this exhibition necessitates this, yet the photographer’s approach to his sitters is not predictable and one is struck by his innovative approach. Many of his sitters are well known people of his time not from the world of celebrity but from the Arts.
Marcel Duchamp, Dadaist founder and famous for exhibiting a urinal, was photographed in 1916; he was also photographed later as a transvestite.
These images were made in New York during the First World War; later Man Ray moved to Paris where he was to photograph many people famous at that time such as Pablo Picasso, the artist, with his “intense, intransigent look” which was made using the lsat plate (cameras of that time used a more complicated process involving single sheet fed film as the recording media) of a session in which he copied Picasso’s work.
Man Ray had learnt to work in studio-like conditions in which he had control of the lighting and was hence able to create the creative effects he wanted.
One of his landmark images is called “le Violon d’Ingres”; made in 1924, it shows the openings of a violin body superimposed on the back of a nude. With imaging software, this kind of work is quite easily accomplished but at that time it was a highly skilled act made in the darkroom. The vision was also novel and indicates Man Ray’s involvement with the Surrealists.
In 1923, Man Ray photographed another expatriate American, the author Ernest Hemingway who was also living in Paris at that time.
“Noire et Blanche” is a series of photographs made with the young French model “Kiki de Montparnasse” (his partner between 1922 – 28). These images are not only noteworthy for their use of black and white but also a mask with the apparent isolation of the head from the body.
Some of the photographs in this exhibition are pleasant surprises as one puts a face to someone one knew of; for instance, I am familiar with the music of Erik Satie and so a portrait of him from 1924 is instantly engaging. Other images mean little although they may be appealing such as the photographs of the Maharaja and Maharani of Indore from 1927.
Another stage in the life of Man Ray was initiated by his affair with Lee Millar. She was modelling for Vogue magazine for which Man Ray photographed; it sees the start of his “solarised” prints which became a kind of trademark. In 1930, he photographed her by a window with the lacework over the window throwing a maze of patterns on her upper torso. Apart from formal assignments, Man Ray worked on other topics such as suicide.
Another of his subjects from this time was Le Corbusier, the architect, who looks upward and out of the frame as if surveying one of his buildings. Man Ray also photographed himself and these self-portraits are dotted throughout the exhibition space.
There is a portrait of Salvador Dali from 1929 in which his subject looks quite ordinary although the prominent moustache is evident; later photographic portraits of Dali have been more like performances!
An example of the way Man Ray reinvented his work continuously can be seen in a couple of prints from a Lesbian portrait; one image is soft while the other is much clearer and sharper. There is another distinctly “gay” image from 1933 featuring the overtly feminine features of Meret Oppenheimer.
There is another print showing a line of fellow artists including Lee Millar and Max Ernst that tumbles down to Man Ray who crouches at the bottom with his head sticking out from beneath Lee Millar’s armpit.
Coco Chanel is photographed posing in a dark dress set against a light background.
There is a 1933 portrait of Pablo Picasso, this time a portrait of a more formal nature, the subject engaging with the photographer.
Man Ray worked for magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and there is a portrait of Gertrude Lawrence from the december 1936 edition of the latter. The subject sits against a black background, another example of a “bright” face looming out of a darkness.
Virginia Woolf was photographed in 1934 and it was this image that helped to make her famous; it is probably posed but gives the impression of being a spontaneous moment. Also in 1934, Man Ray photographed Alduous Huxley, another great author and like Virginia Woolf, a member of The Bloomsbury Group.
There is a catching photograph of a circus performer who poses between the legs of Lee Millar, a reminder of the fun performer and his fellow artists must have had behind the scenes.
During the war years and after, Man Ray was in Hollywood and made some beautiful photographs yet I was unable to recall these people; it seems they had faded from memory as their fame left them. In another self-portrait, this time from 1946, Man Ray styles himself as a painter from the Left Bank of Paris.
After the Second World War, Man Ray returned to live in France and one of his last great photographic images is of Catherine Deneuve, the French actress. He also photographed Pablo Picasso again in 1955, this time a much older man yet still with enough vigour to look upon Jacqueline Roque his mistress.
At first, this extibition looked a bit dreary, black and white images from the past of people no longer alive, but as one looked closer a different impression arose. The National Portrait Gallery is perhaps more interested in images of well known “historical” figures that are part of a shared heritage than the photography that went into their production yet this exhibition also bears testament to Man Ray’s photographic virtuosity.