Man Ray was one of the earliest and most influential avant-garde photographers. Though known for his experimental work, he was also a talented portraitist who photographed the artists, celebrities, and intellectuals of his day, many of whom he counted among his friends. A new exhibit opening Feb. 7 at London’s National Portrait Gallery, Man Ray Portraits, focuses exclusively on these images. Spanning most of Man Ray’s career, the portraits offer insight into his life, his times, and his artistic process.
Born in 1890, Man Ray had artistic ambitions from an early age and had little interest in school. Instead, he learned the basics of photography from Alfred Stieglitz and devoted himself to painting. It wasn’t until he met Marcel Duchamp in 1915 that Man Ray’s interest in the avant-garde began. The two men tried to establish a New York Dada movement, but, overcome by the intensity of New York, gave up and moved to Paris in 1921. There he took many of his most famed portraits, including those of his lover Kiki de Montparnesse. He also made considerable technological advances in photography, creating his own type of photograms, “Rayograms,” and developing the process of solarisation. After the outbreak of World War II, Man Ray left Paris for Hollywood, where he officially devoted himself to painting, but continued to take portraits including many of film stars. However, he never felt comfortable in Hollywood and returned to Paris in 1951 where he remained until his death in 1976.
Man Ray’s blurring of the lines between disciplines and his innovative photographic techniques have had a substantial and storied influence on contemporary art. But the portraits have been just as significant in their own field. By photographing prominent figures for magazines like Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Harper’s Bazaar, he helped pave the way for artistic fashion photographers like Richard Avedon and Annie Leibovitz.