Stepping into the National Portrait Gallery’s Man Ray exhibition is like stepping into a who’s who of 1920s and 1930s artistic movements and society. As well as intimate portraits of his friends and lovers, there are photographs of Salvador Dali (whose eyes were remarkably piercing); Ernest Hemingway (whom I thought didn’t look especially comfortable in front of the camera); James Joyce (who was protecting his eyes from the light following ocular surgery, but came over as if he were thinking very hard); and Coco Chanel (looking characteristically chic). Not forgetting Pablo Picasso, Wallis Simpson, and Igor Stravinsky.
It isn’t, however, an exhibition restricted to his work over this period. There are approximately 150 prints, spanning from 1916 in New York to 1968 in Paris, taking in 1920s and 1930s Paris and war-time and post-war Hollywood. Many of the images have never been exhibited before in the UK, and it includes photographs from the 1940s, a period when Ray was typically thought to have abandoned photography.
The constantly fascinating element to Man Ray’s work is that you never know what you’re going to get. They’re all portraits, yes, but sometimes they’re tack-sharp and at others softly focused; some are perfect close-ups, others glorious environmental portraits; and then there come his experiments: Rayographs and solarisation. It’s a delicious chocolate box of photographic craft and experimentation; an inspiration to move out of your comfort zone and to try something new.
The majority of the prints are black and white, although some colour appears towards the end of the exhibition, and I was struck by how small he liked to print his work. It forces you to step in close, to acquaint yourself with the subject, to take a closer look.
Man Ray was an artist before he was a photographer. His comment on this was that he chose to photograph what he did not wish to paint. Interestingly, the photos that I preferred, those I kept returning to gaze upon, were those that I believe would have worked especially well as paintings. No, it wasn’t that I thought that Berenice Abbot’s 1921 portrait or one particular image of assistant and collaborator Lee Miller would have been better as paintings. Not that at all. It was that I could envisage how they would work as oil-on-canvas. Testament, perhaps, to his talents as both an artist and a photographer?
Man Ray Portraits runs from 7 February to 27 May 2013 at the National Portrait Gallery.
The featured image for this post is Solarised Portrait of Lee Miller, c.1929 by Man Ray The Penrose Collection © Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2012, courtesy The Penrose Collection. Image courtesy the Lee Miller Archives