Writing on photography

Review: Man Ray at National Portrait Gallery

‘I photograph what I do not wish to paint’ so Man Ray famously declared, and with this in my mind it was something of a revelation to discover that someone who was an accomplished if unconventional and only occasional portrait painter had also spent so much time taking photographic portraits of his colleagues and acquaintances, friends and lovers. From his early years as a young artist experimenting with a camera as a way to record his paintings through the second world war and into his post-war editorial work, this exhibition covers the majority of Man Ray’s career.

The exhibition is ordered chronologically, starting with early portraits from his time in Paris which view rather like a who’s who of the avant garde. Subjects include Picasso, Le Corbusier, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, a very youthful Hemingway and Matisse doing a passable impression of Freud (as Man Ray remarked he resembled a prosperous doctor more than a radical artist). Then follows the only section dedicated to a single person, his portraits of his lover and muse Lee Miller. The last few sections cover his flight from Paris in the prelude to the Second World War, his sojurn in America (for most fleeing the war a time of exile, oddly for Man Ray actually a time of returning to his homeland) and finally his return to Paris in the fifties.

The section of Lee Miller portraits perhaps inevitably outshines the others, her sheer beauty combined with the obvious magnetism between her and Man Ray makes for a series of absolutely engrossing portraits. They’re also some of the strangest in the show, employing experiments like solarisation and some bizzare settings. Perhaps the most interesting image in the entire exhibition is a dyptch of Lee Miller sitting on her father’s knee like a small child (her father himself an amateur photographer, was given to taking photographs of his young daughter nude). Given the speculation over the nature of their relationship, and the added dynamic of Man Ray photographing them, it’s a disquieting pair of photographs.

To be honest thought I was a little surprised at how conventional many of the other portraits were, Man Ray’s 1923 portrait of Iris Tree for example echoes the portraits of photo pioneers like Julia Margaret Cameron, his later portraits also don’t feel particularly innovative, in subject matter many reminded me of the work of Ida Karr, but not always so adept at expressing the character of the sitter (there are some excellent exceptions to this, like a portrait of Virginia Woolf. For someone who I had always regarded as an innovator in every respect, it was a little disappointing to discover how unambitious many of his portraits were. On balance thought this may partly reflect the inevitable dating of the work, and the watering down effect that often occurs when something is so widely influential.

And there are some impressive experiments, the solarised portraits for example are beautiful, and then there are several forays into colour portraiture. Colour maybe seems passe now but amongst the primarily black and white exhibition these few pieces stand out like a scream, and give you a real sense of how revolutionary it must have seemed when photographers began to experiment with colour proccesses, what an absolute upset it must have caused. Also however conventional the portraits in technical terms, the subjects invariably make them fascinating viewing. I loved seeing the succession of Picasso portraits from across his career, likewise the series of self-portraits of Man Ray.

Many of the prints are very small, vintage prints, and in some respects this makes it harder to judge their impact particularly if you go at peak time and have to fight your way through the rather impressive crowds to see them. I’m a big critic of photography exhibitions that emphasise size over quality, so seeing the original prints small as they are is a pleasure, and they are worth the effort to get up close to, just bring some sharp elbows especially as the exhibition closes in a matter of days and is bound to be busy.

Man Ray Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery is on untill May 27th 2012.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

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