The name Man Ray conjures images of static Rayographs, cameraless photos that hovered between abstract and representation and delighted Dadist poets during the early 1920’s. But there’s a lot more to the artist, as a new-ish exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery reveals. Unsurprisingly, given the gallery host, Man Ray was a talented portrait photographer who, according to Duchamp, “treated the camera as he treated the paintbrush, a mere instrument at the service of his mind.“
Man Ray spent over half a century taking portraits, and this exhibition charts his travels to Paris, New York and Hollywood, then back to Paris. During those travel he photographed everyone, his portfolio reads like a who’s who of the 20th century, including Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Nancy Cunard, Ava Gardner, Elsa Schiaparelli Coco Chanel. His work with Lee Miller, a model who became a famous photographer in her own right, is amongst his most well known. Her Grecian beauty was immortalised in a famous profile portrait (shot in 1929) chosen to front the exhibition, and she appears in some of Man Ray’s strongest shots, including ‘Lee Miller’s Legs with Circus Performer’ (1930), a strong composition that fragments and distorts her beauty.
The final room of the exhibition concentrates on ‘Hollywood’,where Man Ray met Juliet Browner, a 28-year-old dancer and model who became the artist’s muse and companion. Although Man Ray became increasingly preoccupied with painting, he continued to take photographic portraits, including Ava Gardner in her role as Pandora in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, (directed by Albert Lewin, 1951) and Catherine Deneuve in a wonderful image, filled with props and wearing jewellery designed by the artist.
Man Ray Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery until 27 May 2013.