Walking through the exhibition of artist Man Ray’s photographs at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is like stepping into a time machine. One is instantly transported back to the exhilarating, cosmopolitan Paris of the 1920s and 1930s, with its bohemian atmosphere and compelling cast of artists, writers and performers. A sense of teeming creativity emanates from the gallery walls, hung with Ray’s portraits of such cultural and artistic luminaries as Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Salvador Dali, Igor Stravinsky and Edna St. Vincent Millay.
In the years between the two world wars, Paris, a symbol of artistic freedom and modernity, became a mecca for the international avant-garde. Amidst this assembly, a close-knit community of American expatriates formed, prompted in part by the end of World War I, the favorable exchange rate between the dollar and the franc, and the end of the deadly 1918-1919 flu epidemic.
Among this group was the artist and photographer Man Ray, a founding father of the antiestablishment, satirical Dada movement and follower of the modernist sensibility of photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz. The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Emmanuel “Manny” Radnitzky, who adopted the pseudonym Man Ray around 1912, was born in South Philadelphia and grew up in Brooklyn, New York. At Brooklyn’s Boys’ High School he learned drafting and other art techniques, and during frequent visits to local museums, he studied works by the Old Masters.
Turning down a scholarship to pursue architecture, he decided instead to concentrate on painting. Although he had owned a simple Brownie camera for years, his career as a self-taught photographer didn’t really start until 1915, when he began making reproductions of his own artwork while living in New York City. Soon he was photographing works for other artists, as well as for organizations such as the Société Anonyme, which he cofounded with artists Marcel Duchamp and Katherine Drier in 1920 to promote modern art in the United States.
A sale of his paintings to Ohio art collector Ferdinand Howald earned Ray the funds for a much-coveted trip to Paris. Arriving in the French capital in July 1921, he soon came into contact with American writer Gertrude Stein and American expat Sylvia Beach, owner of Shakespeare and Company, the renowned Parisian bookstore. Both women became champions of his work. Beach commissioned him to do a photographic portrait of Irish writer James Joyce for publicity related to his landmark novel Ulysses, which she published in February 1922.
“Shakespeare and Company sent the writer to me to have press photos made,” Ray wrote in his autobiography, Self-Portrait. “I went to work on Joyce because his fine Irish face, although marred by thick glasses—he was between two operations on his eyes—interested me…he seemed to consider the sitting a terrible nuisance.”
Although Ray worked in a variety of media, including film, sculpture and painting, photography was the means he favored during his time in Paris. He made his first photographic portraits there around November 1921 and soon set out on a mission to record the city’s bohemian art scene. The remarkable series of portraits he produced documented the international avant-garde gathered in the city and established him as one of the leading photographers of his era.
“Man Ray: The Paris Years,” on view in Richmond through February 21, 2022, was planned to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the artist’s arrival in the French capital. Organized by Michael Taylor, VMFA’s chief curator and deputy director for art and education, this revelatory exhibition is supported by extensive archival research. Featuring more than 100 photographs, the show focuses not only on the artist’s achievement as a photographer and portraitist, but also on the friendships and exchange of ideas that took place between the artist and his subjects. An emphasis on storytelling lies at the heart of the exhibition. By relating the stories of Ray’s respective sitters and highlighting the innovative techniques he used to create their portraits, the show gives the subjects of his photographs a voice that brings them to life.
Ray connected with a number of his subjects at the renowned Saturday evening salons that Gertrude Stein held at the Montparnasse apartment she shared with her partner, Alice B. Toklas. The salons provided the opportunity for members of the expatriate American community to meet with their European counterparts and engage in dialogue. Stein’s impressive collection of modern paintings, by such artists as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, provided an apt backdrop for the group’s discussions. Ray became Stein’s official photographer in the 1920s and through her met future clients and patrons.
The bohemian art world of Paris soon beat a path to Man Ray’s studio. “As a photographer, I was in demand,” the artist explained to John Bainbridge, a writer at The New Yorker. “I was like a doctor. Everybody needed me.” Bookstore owner Sylvia Beach noted that Ray and his pupil Berenice Abbott were the official portraitists of “the crowd” and that the walls of her store were covered with their photographs. To “be done” by Ray and Abbott, she said, meant that you rated as somebody.
Ray’s photography produced a substantial income and also contributed to his rapid rise to fame in the French capital. During his early days there, the artist was commissioned to make portraits of such notable figures as French artist Marie Laurencin and American poet William Carlos Williams, mainly for promotion related to upcoming publications, events or exhibitions. In addition to the fees Ray received for these portraits, he was also paid when the images appeared in magazines such as Vanity Fair. He ventured as well into fashion photography in collaboration with designer Elsa Schiaparelli. Thanks to revenue from these endeavors, he was able to rent a luxurious two-floor apartment in Montparnasse, where he lived from 1922 to 1935.
French poet, playwright and filmmaker Jean Cocteau was Ray’s greatest advocate during those early years. Ray met Cocteau in 1921 through a mutual friend, painter Francis Picabia, and subsequently made several portraits of the poet. Cocteau, who had extensive connections within the Parisian avant-garde, introduced Ray to actors, ballet dancers and composers, thus further expanding the photographer’s clientele.
Ray often said that Old Master paintings, especially those of Hans Holbein the Younger, Rembrandt van Rijn and Johannes Vermeer inspired his portraits.
“I…admired the respect with which they treated the proportions of human features,” he wrote in an article published in Modern Photography magazine in November 1957. From Rembrandt and Holbein he learned how to emphasize the physical presence and distinguishing facial features of his sitters through the use of strong lighting effects and minimal, unadorned backgrounds—techniques that became hallmarks of his photography.
Most of all, Ray wanted to capture the spirit of his subjects. He believed that his photography transcended the camera’s mechanical ability to record countenances and strove to imbue his portraits with a sense of drama and mystery. He achieved this in part by his creative use of light and shadow, composition and angle of pose, as well as by employing innovative techniques such as photomontage and solarization (exposure of developing film to a flash of light that creates a halo-like effect in the final product).
“Being both inventive and methodical is key to Ray’s talent as a photographer,” says critic Arthur Lubow, author of Man Ray: The Artist and His Shadows. “He was a
first-rate portraitist, creating flattering images by shooting from a distance, then cropping and enlarging the image, which softened flaws yet captured facial proportions accurately. But overall, I’d say, it was his wit—his unconventional approach to conventional subjects—that distinguishes him.” In addition, the fact that so many of Ray’s subjects were friends or colleagues provided him with the emotional and psychological insight he sought to convey in his portraits. In fact, Ray had serious love affairs with several of his female subjects, including his photography assistant Lee Miller and the legendary model and nightclub performer Alice Prin, better known by her stage name, Kiki de Montparnasse. In 1946, Ray would marry dancer and model Juliet Browner.
The extraordinary roster of creative individuals who posed for Ray included American and British expatriate artists and writers, his friends and colleagues in the Dada and Surrealist groups, arts patrons and members of the European aristocracy. Among those subjects was artist Jules Pascin. Born Julius Mordecai Pincas in Vidin, Bulgaria, the artist changed his name to the more French-sounding Pascin shortly after moving to Paris in 1905. Pascin was associated with the School of Paris, a group of
foreign-born painters and sculptors, including Marc Chagall and Jacques Lipchitz, who challenged the antisemitism that was growing in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s by highlighting the important contributions they were making to French culture. Ray, himself, did not talk about his Jewish origins and if asked, says biographer Lubow, would deflect the question.
Another subject was the Romanian-born poet and playwright Samuel “Sami” Rosenstock, better known as Tristan Tzara, one of the founders and promoters of the international Dada movement during and after World War I. Tzara met Ray at the end of 1921 when they both lived at the Grand Hôtel des Écoles in Montparnasse.
They became close friends, and Tzara witnessed Ray’s experiments with his first camera-less photograms, or “rayographs.” Ray had discovered the process when he accidentally exposed ordinary objects on a sheet of light-sensitive paper, which registered their reverse imprints and shadows when he exposed the paper to light.
“Man Ray used photography to challenge artistic traditions and break boundaries, including fixed gender roles and racial barriers,” says curator Michael Taylor. “His portraits went beyond recording the mere outward appearance of the person depicted and aimed instead to capture the essence of his sitters as creative individuals, as well as the collective nature and character of Les Années folles (the crazy years) of Paris between the two world wars.”
Man Ray’s stay in Paris came to an end in 1940 with the German occupation. He went back to the United States, to New York and Los Angeles, where he continued his work as a painter and photographer, ultimately returning to Paris in 1951. He died there in 1976. But his creative energy and commitment to groundbreaking innovation live on in the portraits he created during his first two decades in the French capital—portraits that remain an invaluable record of the cultural landscape of Paris in the early years of the 20th century.
Opening picture: Man Ray created “Self-Portrait with Camera” in 1930 using the innovative process of solarization, which produced the halo-like effect that outlines his profile. Ray is seen adjusting the focal range of his camera, whose lens points outward, as if the viewer were his next subject. (Photo credit: Man Ray 2015 Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY/ADAGP, Paris 2021)
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