It was his great friend and fellow Dadaist, Marcel Duchamp, who got Man Ray right as a photographer. “It was his achievement,” he wrote later, “to treat the camera as he treated the paintbrush, a mere instrument at the service of his mind.” Man Ray himself put it rather differently in an essay before he returned to France after his sojourn in the US during the war. “Painting is directed by the heart through the eye,” he wrote. “Photography is directed in the mind through the eye. But the desire and love for the subject direct both mediums. One cannot replace the one with the other…”
The greatest surprise of his portraits, a calling he pursued for friends and for magazines through most of the half century of his working life, was not that they were so absurdist and daring, although some undoubtedly were, but that they were so true to his subjects. For Man Ray, through all his puns, his experiments with process and his jokey juxtaposition of people and objects, was a great portraitist in celluloid, as a comprehensive exhibition of his photographic works at the National Portrait Gallery handsomely shows. His pictures of the figures from his years in Paris as well as New York, Hollywood and London are more than just documents of an age – although they are that – they are also profound representations of people as they projected themselves in the artistic and cultural circles in which they made their mark.
If that meant most of the works were produced for celebratory publications or to advertise the shows of his colleagues that is not a criticism. It was because he was a Surrealist, and an American outsider born of Russian émigré parents but living most of his life in Paris, that Man Ray was so fascinated by appearance, by celebrity and by modern media.
Take his most famous pictures, the double vision picture of Marchesa Casati in 1922 with two sets of eyes. The image was not the result of a preconceived trick but an accident of double exposure which, ever the believer in the spontaneous, he took advantage of. Vanity Fair was delighted with it and it made his reputation. Or look at Man Ray's most famous picture of his lover and model, Kiki, from the back, entitled Le Violon d'Ingres of 1924. With its turbaned head and the superimposed scroll emblems of the violin on the naked back, it's a play on the both the French painter's classic nudes and his love of the instrument. But it's also a homage to the classical portrait in art.
In nearly all of Man Ray's portraits there is a knowledge of the past and the way the great painters gave presence to faces through the use of light and the introduction of objects in the background. There is also, in Man Ray's case, a deep concern with process. In the various self-portraits he took during his life, he is very often pictured at work in the processing lab and the printing. Teasingly, he was wont to deny that he was a painter, declaring himself a “photometrographer. My works are purely photometric”. But he was also serious. Light and its manipulation in exposure and in the dark room always fascinated him. He was quite happy on occasion to develop and print the films of his fellow artists to help them achieve their effect.
He had, as all the Surrealists seem to have had, an obsession with the female nude and there are plenty of teasing examples here including a mocking self-portrait, Man Ray (Asleep) from 1930 of himself with the statue of the Venus de Milo floating above and a large electric light beside. But, unlike many of his colleagues, he genuinely delighted in their company and their individuality. Just as Picasso's artistic course could be viewed through his successive lovers, so could Man Ray's: the Montparnasse model Kiki after he moved to Paris in 1921, then the American photographer and journalist, Lee Miller, from 1929 to 1932, followed by the Guadeloupe dancer, Ady Fidelin, from 1936 to 1940, when he left war-torn France for the US, where he married Juliet Browner, who stayed with him until his death in 1976. His portraits of them, particularly Lee Miller, are suffused with a sense of both affection and admiration.
What made Man Ray such a good photographer – and so attractive to magazines – was that he didn't on the whole see his subjects as objects to be manipulated for artistic effect. He was a Surrealist but not a Dalí. His least effective works are often when he does go in that direction. Nor was he intrusive as a photographer. What he tried to capture was the sense of the individual. He understood how they wanted to look as well as how they did.
Virginia Woolf is caught in 1934, her hand half raised, in a pose that combines both intelligence and delicacy. Lady Diana Cooper, taken in 1923, is wrapped in wool, dreamy and self-consciously pretty. Nancy Cunard, heavily bangled, hair lacquered has an air of privileged determination. Ava Gardner is seen exactly as she came to him, poised, professional and knowing exactly her worth.
Men he found more difficult since, as he put it, they were so much less certain of what they wanted. But he was good with them. His portrait of Picasso in 1933 comunicates exactly the piercing gaze of his black eyes and his large workman's hands. Matisse is photographed in 1925 conservative in his tweed suit and neatly kept beard but with a terribly searching look in his eyes. Aldous Huxley keeps his bad side in shadow. Juan Gris sits by a banjo, in reference to his Cubist art. Jean Cocteau looks through a held frame. James Joyce glances down from the flashlight as if he is pondering his words.
Especially strong are Man Ray's group portraits. There's a haunting series of the Maharaja and Maharanee of Indore in London as well as touching joint portraits of Lee Miller and her father and various group portraits of Surrealist friends and colleagues. Most of his sitters look directly at the camera or just away from it. Few if any are taken as if they are not aware of it.
It's a style that many have copied since, too few of them with his care for light and his basic humanity. For his fondness for people is the overwhelming sense you get from this compelling exhibition. At bottom, Man Ray seems to me to have been a romantic. In the photographic portrait he found his way of expressing it.
Man Ray Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, London WC2 (020 7306 0055) to 27 May