RIGHT OF REPLY: The accidental alchemist

`Lousy photographs and terrible paintings' we said. Not so, says Val Wi lliams: Man Ray was a dreamer and a genius A little man from Brooklyn, he gazed with amazement at a European bohemia of va nity and glamour
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The Independent Culture
Few of us have ever seen an original Man Ray, but we all know the work. We've seen it advertising vodka, non-iron shirts and books about Lee Miller. Man Ray's classic images have been appropriated and parodied unceasingly both in advertising and in fine art. Through constant reproduction, his photographs have become part of our contemporary visual culture. The current exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery is the first in Britain since Roland Penrose put together a retrospective at the ICA in 1974. It is a long overdue review of the work of one of the most influential photographers of our times. Man Ray liked to see himself as a "practical dreamer". Like so many of his generation, he refused to take photography seriously. When he made significant technical advances, like his solarisations or Rayograms, he shrugged them off as "darkroom accidents". Like his contemporary, the British fashion and portrait photographer Cecil Beaton, he liked to see himself as an accidental photographer. Beaton took some of his most seminal photographs with a Box Brownie and he referred to his portraiture and fashion work as "old vomit".

To answer the question, "Was Man Ray a bad photographer?" we first need to decide what a good one is. "Good" photographers give us a compelling and convincing insight into the world around us. And it matters little how they do it. A shaky family snapshotcan tell us more about home life than the work of the most adept photojournalist. Man Ray was fascinated by the demi-monde of inter-war Paris to which he so desperately needed to belong. A little man from Brooklyn, he gazed with amazement at a European bohemia of vanity and glamour. In his portraits, he created a necessary fantasy, making interesting people beguiling, plain women beautiful and beautiful women spectacular. He flattered the female form and created mysterious votive objects out of the most ordinary flesh and blood.

Man Ray's photographs are full of longing. They are an outsider's images. In his particular paradise, he was always discontented. The models who became his lovers wandered away from him when they became icons, the painters he photographed were "real" artists while everyone said that he was a sham. It is his curiosity and his anxious, obsessive desire that gives Man Ray's photographs their inimitable edge.

Man Ray's work is revelatory about the nature of fame and sexuality and about the physical presence of the objects that surrounded him. It is almost alchemic. Was Kiki's back really so perfect? Or Lee Miller's profile so sublime? Was there ever an artistwho looked so much the part as Marcel Duchamp?

Man was an unashamed elitist and in the 1990s we feel uncomfortable with that. He lived in a rarefied world, holidayed with Picasso and photographed haute couture for Poiret. At his court of high fashion, we are merely the grubby spectators, dispossessedof glamour. His photographed world was a fairy-tale of sophistication at which, outsiders just like him, we can only wonder.

n Man Ray is showing at the Serpentine Gallery, London W2, to 12 March. Daily 10am-6pm; free

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