Man crush: When Man Ray met Lee Miller

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A major new exhibition finally explores the extraordinary effect an unlikely meeting with the model Lee Miller had on the Surrealist Man Ray

If the countless celebrities photographed by Man Ray – Wallis Simpson, Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf, Picasso, Chanel, Schiaparelli, himself – the one he went back to most obsessively was Lee Miller. You can see why. Miller was a physical ideal, the kind of perfectly moulded, ice-blonde beauty beloved of Hitchcock; flawless, or at least imaginably so. You can see her image a dozen times over in the National Portrait Gallery's new exhibition, Man Ray Portraits, the first major museum show to deal with this part of the Surrealist's oeuvre.

There is something else about Miller that seems to appeal to the man born Emmanuel Radnitzky in Brooklyn in 1890, though. She is unknowable, and it drives him crazy. Man Ray treats Miller differently from his other sitters, chopping her up into parts, anatomising her. Yet, like a character in Greek myth, Miller becomes less a woman and more of an object with each cut of Ray's knife. As the years pass, you sense a growing desperation to his slicing.

There is, most famously, Lee Miller the profile (see page 16), shot in 1929, the year when she became the photographer's pupil and lover. (Armed with an introduction from the fashion photographer Edward Steichen, she had turned up, unannounced, at Ray's table at his Paris café, Le Bateau Ivre. "I'm leaving for a holiday in Biarritz," the dumbstruck photographer had said. "So am I," replied Miller. Ray's long-time girlfriend, Kiki de Montparnasse, was quickly disposed of.) Then there is Miller-as-legs, in "Lee Miller's Legs with Circus Performer" (1930), Miller's lips ("Observatory Time"), her back and backside ("La Prière"), and her single, all-seeing eye on the ticking arm of a metronome in "Object of Destruction".

This, the second version of a ready-made called "Object to be Destroyed", dates from 1932, the year Miller left Ray and Paris to marry an Egyptian named Aziz Eloui Bey. Ray's instructions to fans on how to make their own version of the work suggest the violence of his anatomical method. "Cut out the eye from a photograph of one who has been loved but is seen no more," he writes, bitterly. "Attach the eye to the pendulum of a metronome and regulate the weight to suit the tempo desired. Keep going to the limit of endurance. With a hammer well-aimed, try to destroy the whole at a single blow." That done, the photographer, ever the drama queen, sat for a self-portrait called "Suicide" with a noose around his neck and a gun pointed at his head. After that, he made "Larmes", its features mistakeable for Miller's although they are actually of a shop dummy. The mannequin's tears, like its face, are entirely artificial. Hell hath no fury like a Surrealist scorned.

Of all the pictures Man Ray took of Miller, only one set gets close to capturing a truth about her, and the images in that series are four-limbed, fully clothed and apple-pie wholesome. In December 1930, Miller's father, Theodore, had come to Paris from Poughkeepsie, New York, to see his daughter. Like any good parent might, he had taken pictures of her. Unlike most fathers, these photographs were shot in the nude, in the bathtub of their shared hotel suite. Lee Miller was 23.

Her father had begun to photograph his naked daughter long before that, in 1914, when she was seven. According to Miller herself, in that year, she, then known as Elizabeth, had been sent to stay with family friends while her mother was in hospital. During the trip, she had been raped by a sailor; the attack left her with gonorrhea. For the next year, the child was subjected to daily douches of potassium permanganate, and k twice-weekly visits to the hospital to have her cervix painted with picric acid. Everything she touched at home was immediately sterilised.

It was during this year that Theodore had begun to photograph his daughter in the nude, his first composition being a take on the French artist Paul Chabas' September Morn, a painting of a nubile girl bathing, which had caused a scandal when it was shown in New York in 1913. For his own picture, Miller required his daughter to pose, nude but for slippers, in the deep Poughkeepsie snow: the resulting picture was called "December Morn". Theodore made it using a stereoscopic camera, so that, viewed through accompanying glasses, his naked child appeared three-dimensional.

The shots Man Ray took of Lee and Theodore Miller, she in a demure print frock and curled, child-like, in her father's lap, are deeply weird. They seem less of a father and daughter than of an older man and his much younger lover. Perhaps Ray had heard rumours that Theodore had been Lee's actual childhood abuser, or he may have imagined it for himself. (No charges were ever brought against the unidentified sailor-rapist.) In terms of age, Ray's own relationship with Lee was also ambiguously paternal: he was 17 years older than her, a pattern that would mark all her relationships with men. At any rate, Theodore and Ray seem to have gotten along famously. Together, the two men photographed Lee, nude, lolling on a bed with three other naked women. The images are not in the NPG's show.

It is hard not to see all this in psychological terms, if not in moral ones. Cursed with a perfect beauty, Miller became a focus of the male need to violate. For Man Ray, this was aggravated by the masculine drive to compete. His portraits of Lee Miller aren't just of a woman, but of a woman photographer. It was Miller, not he, who – turning on a light in their darkroom before a set of negatives in it had fully developed – discovered the technique called "solarisation" which became Man Ray's trademark. His solarised nudes are perhaps Ray's best-known works.

Miller was with him, too, when he made the rayographs in his series, "Électricité", just as it was she who hand-coloured black-and-white film footage found in a Paris flea market and projected it on to the white-dressed revellers at the Count and Countess Pecci Blunt's ball, the Bal Blanc, in June 1930. It was Ray who had given Miller her first Kodak camera; by 1930, it was not always easy to tell their work apart. That year, Miller fished a discarded photograph he had taken of her out of the dustbin in Ray's darkroom and cropped it into a work of her own. He, outraged, slashed the picture's neck and splattered the gash with drops of red ink.

Reconciled at the end of the 1930s when Miller was married to the British Surrealist Roland Penrose, the pair stayed friends for the rest of their lives. They last met in London in 1975, at Ray's retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. By now, he was in a wheelchair and Miller was a drunk, maddened by the horrors she had photographed during the Second World War. One of those images sticks forcibly in the mind. It, too, is of legs, although these are not the legs of an American nymphette but of a group of people standing around a heap of dust. The dust is cremated ash; the legs, those of survivors of Dachau.

Man Ray Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery, London WC2 (npg.org.uk), from 7 February to 27 May

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