Man Ray’s Paris Portraits: 1921-1939 @Di Donna

JTF (just the facts): A total of 72 black-and-white photographs, variously framed and matted, and hung against light grey walls in the single room gallery space. All of the works are vintage gelatin silver prints (some solarized, some mounted on paper), made between 1921 and 1939. Physical sizes range from roughly 4×3 to 11×9 inches (or the reverse), and no edition information was provided. The show also includes two cases of ephemera, including books, pamphlets, magazine spreads, and announcement cards. (Installation shots below.)

A small catalog of the exhibition has been published by the gallery, and is available for $70.

Comments/Context: The Man Ray that we are most accustomed to encountering in the contemporary art world is the risk-taking Dadaist turned Surrealist painter of the between-the-wars period, with his boldly experimental photography, including staged/superimposed setups, solarized images, and his self-titled darkroom rayographs, often garnering much of the attention. But during the 1920s and 1930s, Man Ray also ran a successful studio portraiture and fashion photography business in Paris, and this superlative show gathers together dozens of vintage examples from this more traditional practice. Given Man Ray’s insider access to the artistic community of that particular time and place, his photographic portraits provide a time capsule-like window into that fertile artistic moment, while also offering examples of his efforts to infuse standard studio portraiture with more avant-garde aesthetic elements.

Of course, many of Man Ray’s subjects came for a relatively straightforward, headshot style portrait, and plenty of the images on view here fit that formal category, with men in dark suits and women in fancy dresses shown straight on, with a turn to one side or the other, or in profile, with little in the way of additional styling or posing. What makes these portraits exciting is the parade of famous faces Man Ray captured, including a who’s who of French writers, poets, artists, composers, architects, and actors, as well as a smattering of expatriates in Paris, including a handful of American, English, and Irish writers, poets, and artists, like Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Alexander Calder, and Gertrude Stein. It’s clear from the range of influential artistic personalities he photographed that Man Ray was deeply woven into the Parisian artistic fabric during these years, and that these sitters were keen to be photographed by a fellow traveler whose sensibilities matched their own.

Given the plain backdrops that Man Ray often employed, the introduction of simple props and hats were often enough to give a portrait a jolt of the unexpected. Canes are held by Jean Cocteau, Philippe Soupault, and Sinclair Lewis, while jaunty hats adorn the heads of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Augustus John, Kay Boyle, and Kiki de Montparnasse. In other images, a twist of loose hair, a hand holding a cigarette, a patterned sweater, some dangly earrings, and a jumping figure in the background were each enough to upset the usual severity of a studio portrait.

Many of Man Ray’s best known images use solarization effects to amplify his subjects (nudes, calla lilies, and fingers, among others), and he uses the same technique on several of his portraits and faces to push them into zones of surreal uncertainty. While André Breton, Elsa Schiaparelli, Joella Loy, and others get this treatment, Man Ray’s solarized portrait of Dr. Charlotte Wolff is the strongest (and strangest) of the examples on view here, the German physician’s interest in hand analysis made visual in a scene of her examining another set of disembodied hands (with one set of hands holding the other). Man Ray also employed a softening blur in a few of his portraits, giving Erik Satie and Simone Breton a gauzy sense of flattering indistinctness.

Many of Man Ray’s most memorable portraits move outside the strict classical boundaries of traditional studio setups to bring more compositional freedom and energy to the images. He experiments with steeper camera angles, in an underneath view of Rose Wheeler on the top of a car and Robert Mallet-Stevens below a curved portico (presumably of his own design). He brings a Modernist sensibility to lovely reclining portraits of Alice Rahon and Lee Miller with their hands near their faces, and to a gestural motion study of a danseuse exotique bent backwards. He makes images of pairs of sitters playing chess in his studio, captures Marcel Proust on his death bed, stages two esteemed concert pianists with miniature pianos, and covers a nude Meret Oppenheimer in printer’s ink. And just when we think Man Ray might have run out of deliberate provocations, he offers us a portrait of a lion cub, seen with the same attentive reserve as any of the artists or poets.

The show ends with a short series of self-portraits – with a blank canvas in his studio in Antibes, writing in bed, and nestled in among the plants in a greenhouse. Along with a few other group shots with friends from the late 1930s, they show us intimate facets of Man Ray’s personal life, moments that would turn out to be near a point of transition. In 1940, to avoid the encroaching dangers of World War II, Man Ray would leave Paris and head to Los Angeles, closing up his portrait studio and essentially ending that chapter in his life.

Weighing in at over 70 vintage prints, this gallery show rivals the most extensive museum collections of Man Ray’s portraiture, providing a nearly comprehensive cross section of nearly two decades of his studio output. As such, it plays the role of both cultural history and aesthetic survey, providing engaging content and context to those interested in the bold faced names as well as to those following May Ray’s evolution as an experimental photographer. It’s an exhibit worth a detour or a special trip, as an extensive collection like this one won’t come around again any time soon.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show range in price from $24000 to $85000, with many on loan (and therefore not for sale). Man Ray’s prints are consistently available at auction, at nearly all price points, from a few thousand dollars for lesser know images and prints from larger editions to his 2022 record price of roughly $12.4M (for a 1924 print of Le Violin d’Ingres). 

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Read more about: Man Ray, Di Donna Galleries

One comment

  1. lorraine anne davis /

    I was Berenice Abbott’s assistant back in the 1980s. She told me that she took a lot of the portraits that were made in Man Ray’s studio, that he signed. Impossible to know which ones, no doubt. But still an interesting anecdote.

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