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Man Ray Portraits - National Portrait Gallery

  • Man Ray manages to add an imaginative element to each of his portraits - maybe it’s that surrealist, dada background - but he seems unhappy just to snap the person, there has to be an idea, a route to explaining or expressing more of the person in every photo.


    Le Violon d’Ingres, 1924 by Man Ray
    Museum Ludwig Cologne, Photography Collections (Collection Gruber) © Man Ray Trust / ADAGP © Copy Photograph Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln


    It probably helps that he’s coming at photography from a painter’s background - he taught himself to take photos so that he could photograph his own paintings. It also helps that he seems to have had an outstanding ability to meet all sorts of famous and extraordinary people.

    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 


    The photo of Ernest Hemingway with his tightly combed hair and nugget eyes and the photo of James Joyce self consciously scratching his head are brilliant examples of how his photos explain the characters - Hemingway with his direct approach and Joyce with his weird neurotic desire for fame. You can see the same in his photos of Barbette - a drag trapeze artist. Man Ray is not content to just photograph him, but has a strange surrealist version of him flying in the background to add more imaginative depth to the image.

    Barbette, 1926 by Man Ray
    The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 84.XM.1000.39 © Man Ray Trust ARS-ADAGP 


    Man Ray’s imagination is constantly at work like the solarised image of model and photographer Lee Miller that almost seems to define an age and the extraordinary image of dancer Helen Tamiris which seems to pre date glam rock.


    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 


    It’s so easy to click away now with your phone without thinking - but this show inspires you to put a little thought into each photo and to let your imagination drive the images.

    Helen Tamiris, 1929 by Man Ray
    Collection du Centre Pompidou, Mnam/Cci, Paris, AM 1994-394 (3200)
    © Man Ray Trust / ADAGP, Paris © Centre Pompidou,MNAM-CCI,Di st. RMN/Guy Carrard 

    Review by Robert Dunt - Founder & CEO and artist

    Man Ray Portraits runs at the National Portrait Gallery until May 27