"Conscience doth make cowards of us all." Shakespeare, Hamlet.
For the critics Man Ray’s best work was his photography, especially his nudes and portraits. In 1975 Graham Harrison asked the ageing surrealist if he could take a portrait of his own but was only allowed a long-shot across a gallery. The result was an image Harrison felt uneasy about, until recently.
Admire Man Ray’s art – Cadeau, A l’heur de l’observatoir – les amoureaux and Object to be Destroyed – if you like, but for me there’s nothing quite like Ray’s photography, especially his nudes and his portraits.
Ray was an American with a French spirit. His images are sensuous and romantic and have a lightness of touch. Moving to New York was the making of Ray’s friend Marcel Duchamp. Moving to Paris in the summer of 1921, and staying, was the making of Man Ray.
In Paris, and at first in need of money, Ray shot fashion for the designer Pioret and portraits of Paris intellectuals through his friendship with Jean Cocteau. In his studio on Rue Campagne-Premiére Ray pioneered the photogram (or rayograph), a print created by flashing light at objects placed on photo-sensitive paper, and when the flaxen-haired Vogue cover girl Lee Miller exploded into his life, the new couple shared Miller’s discovery of solarisation, an effect which filled the shadows and created a dark aura around the edges of the subject, and which, in Ray’s hands, makes his portraits and nudes appear as modern today as they did ninety years ago.
The title of the retrospective ‘Man Ray, Inventor, Painter, Poet,’ which filled the ICA in London the year before Ray’s death in 1976, tells us how the artist wished to be remembered. For the critics however, Man Ray was first and foremost a photographer.
The art historian Paul Overy writing in The Times noted that the rayographs, consigned to the passage leading to the ICA restaurant, were among the best work in the exhibition and Ray’s photograph of an egg, taken in 1938 “is superb and could not be bettered.” In The Magic Image published the same year as the retrospective, a once skeptical Cecil Beaton acknowledged that Ray’s photography had “acquired a validity” and his portraits of the Paris of the 1930s showed a unique point of view.
And if any doubt about Ray’s legacy remains Grove Art Online assures subscribers “it was as a photographer that he made his greatest impact on 20th-century art.”
‘Man Ray, Inventor, Painter, Poet,’ was curated by Mario Amaya of the New York Cultural Centre and by Sir Roland Penrose, then president of the ICA and husband of Lee Miller since 1947.
When Man Ray came to the ICA I asked him if I could take his portrait. Frail and in a wheelchair Ray declined but I was allowed to shoot from a distance as he was taken round the main exhibit accompanied by Penrose and, I’m sure, by Lee Miller.
Sensitive to Ray’s vulnerability I was never entirely happy with the image until I discovered recently that Man Ray had, at Cocteau’s behest, photographed Marcel Proust on his deathbed two days after the author of Remembrance of Things Past had died. And one suspects that in similar circumstances, Lee Miller, who in her prime nailed the horror of Buchenwald, wouldn’t have given it a second thought.
• Man Ray Portraits, the first major museum retrospective of the artist’s photographic portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery, London, from 7 February to 27 May 2013.
Text and photograph © 1975 – 2013 Graham Harrison