It was Lee Miller that led me to Man Ray.
I stumbled upon a small exhibit dedicated to her life and work in the Philadelphia Museum of Art years ago and immediately idolized her. Model and muse, turned avant-garde photographer, turned war correspondent? Obviously I looked up to her considering my love of all things 1920s and interest in becoming a foreign correspondent at the time.
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
I learned about her love affair with Man Ray at that exhibit, how she trained under him and how, together, they created solarization. Infatuated with her and her life, when I found out about Man Ray Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery I had to go for Miller’s sake, but left with a whole new love for Man Ray, which seems to be a common occurrence amongst women who come in contact with this photographer.
The exhibit, which is broken into five time periods between 1916 and 1976 displaying over 150 prints by the artist, kind of felt like looking into the best tabloid magazine possible. Before you roll your eyes and think, how is this girl comparing Man Ray to tabloids, let me explain.
This collection features one of the world’s greatest documentation of two highly romanticised periods in art and film, modern art in 1920s Paris and the Golden Age of Hollywood in the 1940s, by a single artist. It includes portraits of Duchamp in drag, Hemingway in the stoic manly look you’d expect of him, Ava Gardner on set, Picasso young and old but just as intense and countless other performers and artists from both periods.
These were the people of the time, the crowd everyone wanted to be apart of, dress like and bump into and Man Ray photographed them. Plus he had a unique glimpse into their lives, because he was one of them. He captured these two eras and the prime players involved in them so honest, yet gracefully, I almost felt like I had entered a time warp at certain points of the exhibit.
Man Ray Self-Portrait with Camera, 1932 by Man Ray
The Jewish Museum, New York, Purchase: Photography Acquisitions Committee Fund, Horace W. Goldsmith Fund, and Judith and Jack Stern Gift, 2004-16. Photo by Richard Goodbody, Inc
© 2008 Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris 2012 © Photo The Jewish Museum
One of, if not the, most famous portrait featured in the exhibit is that one of Coco Chanel that’s been used time and time again. Black and white, hat tilted above her eyes like some sort of gangster as she looks to the side, countless layers of pearls draped on her neck and chest. I always thought because I’d seen this photo so many times in ads and images with quotes about fashion that when I finally saw the real thing it wouldn’t affect me as much.
I was wrong.
I’m not one of those people to get up close and stare at photos or paintings for ages, but I did with this one. In those few minutes of looking at the perfection of this image and getting sucked into a slightly blurry bangle, I became completely lost in time, having a Midnight in Paris moment.
While Man Ray is known as a lot of things, Dadaist, experimental artist, surrealist, casanova, this exhibit explores his life and his work for what photography is most important for, capturing history through small moments. Man Ray Portraits features vintage photos, magazines and more from Man Ray’s career. You’ll see Ray as a documentary photographer through the work on display at the National Portrait Gallery, but also learn about all his other contributions to photography and see the techniques and characteristics that made his work so unique then and now.
Like with tabloids, seeing the photos in this exhibit will have you curious to find out more about the people of the times and where else you can find them captured on film.
Man Ray Portraits is on display at the National Portrait Gallery until 27 May 2013. Adult admission is £14.00. Visit their website to book tickets and learn more.
Banner photo credit: Catherine Deneuve, 1968 by Man Ray, Private Lender, © Man Ray Trust ARS-ADAGP / DACS
National Portrait Gallery granted me press admission to review this exhibit. All opinions are my own.
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