“MY WORKS ARE PURELY PHOTOMETRIC,” Man Ray declared in a note for a London exhibition in 1959. Although he began his career with a brush, the artist turned to the camera in 1922, and it was with this instrument that he proved a pivotal influence on fellow Dadaists and Surrealists. Man Ray never quite felt that photography—his own or the art form in general—deserved the respect accorded to painting (after all, he merely measured light). But this ambivalence didn’t affect his lifelong effort to innovate within the medium. Much of his work experimented with techniques to produce strange and disconcerting images. He pursued more conventional approaches when fulfilling assignments for the likes of Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Harper’s Bazaar, yet even his commercial portraits, the focus of this volume, are infiltrated by an eccentric eye and fondness for the uncanny.
Spanning more than a half century of work, the collection includes familiar, if not iconic, images from the modernist hit parade (Stein, Duchamp, Picasso, Joyce, Woolf, Hemingway), as well as glamour shots from Hollywood (Dolores del Rio, Ava Gardner, Paulette Goddard). Man Ray can discover an inward, unsettling quality in his subjects: Woolf gazes off outside the frame, poised as if distracted in midsentence; tight-lipped with a carved cane in his hands, Cocteau seems to glare at a mortal enemy. Alternately, the photographer sparks visual dialogue as faces meet him with an almost manic candor: Yves Tanguy invites us to share the reverie he’s lost in, while Dalí peers into and past the lens to the back of the viewer’s head. No doubt, Man Ray shared an affinity with the painters, poets, dancers, and actors he photographed—who in many cases were collaborators and friends—but these are hardly portraits marked by warmth. Precision, in both composition and darkroom technique, dominates our impressions. The term studies is most apt, as Man Ray conducted investigations, revealing essences and idiosyncrasies. For her portrait, American choreographer Helen Tamiris regards us wide-eyed and purposeful, her tiny mouth the epicenter of a swirling mane. Her slack shoulders and loosely draped robe belie the intensity of her gaze as well as that storm cloud of hair. She appears hypnotized even as she herself bewitches us—is she, we wonder, the master or subject of her incongruous energies? Man Ray’s knack for evoking movement within stillness harks back to the Renaissance portraiture of Dürer and Holbein. They too measured light, and, like the photographer, used it to illuminate the lives behind the faces.