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Man Ray’s surrealist world of black and white portraits

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American artist Man Ray’s photographs captured and created over 20 years of avant garde style. This retrospective brings them to life, writes Siân Ruddick
Issue 2340
Man Ray Self-Portrait with Camera, 1932	© 2008 Man Ray Trust
Man Ray Self-Portrait with Camera, 1932 © 2008 Man Ray Trust

This new show at London’s National Portrait Gallery brings together some of the most iconic photographs taken by Man Ray.

Many of the prints have never been shown before in Britain.

The chronologically ordered selections document the artist’s styles and give us an insight into the changing social context.

He was born in Pennsylvania to Russian Jewish immigrants who took the surname Ray. Like many other Jewish families of the time, they changed their name to avoid anti-Semitism.

The young artist hid his past and refused to talk about his early life­—he signed his paintings as Man Ray.

In New York in the early 1920s, Marcel Duchamp was taking the art world by storm. His development of the Dada style, which incorporated mass produced objects into art, captured Man Ray’s imagination.

Man Ray moved to New York and became a close friend of Duchamp. His work from this time reflects these early influences.

A photographic portrait of a woman with a thermometer for an earring is an example of his contribution to Dadaism.

But New York was not as enthusiastic about Dada as Man Ray and Duchamp. Man Ray declared that, “Dada cannot live in New York. All New York is Dada, and will not tolerate a rival.”

He moved to Paris and became the first American artist to be welcomed in into its surrealist scene.

His fascination with the female form was typical of the surrealist movement. It is reflected not only in his photographs but also in his short films.

His lovers and muses feature extensively.

The most famous of these include his solarised portrait of Lee Miller, a model and fashion photographer in her own right.

The other is of Kiki de Montparnasse, his companion and lover for much of the 1920s. They met soon after he arrived in Paris.

It is a photograph of her from behind, with her back painted as a violin and her hair in a turban, which became a celebrated surrealist work.


But Man Ray was more than a documenter of the people around him. His development of methods of photography was as important as his subjects.

He perfected the solarised method, in which light areas appear dark and vice versa.

Previously it was often the result of a mistake—a light being switched on while film was developing in a dark room.

One of the most interesting things about the exhibition is Man Ray’s use of the photograph as an object.

Man Ray’s Surrealist Chessboard, a patchwork made up individual prints of his contemporaries, is an ideal example of this. In the exhibition it is in the same frame Man Ray hung it in on his studio wall.

This exhibition is a brilliant opportunity to see the moving, avant guard photographs by an artist who seemed to embrace all around him.

Man Ray Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, London until 27 May 2013

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