Whoops! There goes a double negative

Man Ray is remembered as a photographer, but craved recognition as a pa inter. Andrew Palmer and Mel Gooding have bad news
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The Independent Culture
Geographically, the Serpentine Gallery treads a pretty predictable line in its Man Ray retrospective. You begin, in the East Wing, with photographs - some 50-odd, and among them a number of this century's most celebrated photographic icons. You then pass through the gallery's atrium, which houses a clutch of his paintings, before moving swiftly on to another swathe of photographs in the West Wing. Paintings may have been close to Man Ray's heart, the space seems to be telling us, but it is for his photography that he will be best remembered. More often than not, Man Ray exhibitions include only photographs. So even if the gallery is taking a traditional view - namely, that Man Ray was a terrible painter but a brilliant photographer - it at least presents us with a rare opportunity to test out the thesis for ourselves. And seeing a selection of Man Ray's haphazard output exhibited together like this leads one, in a curious way, to the heretical position that not only was he a terrible painter, he was a lousy photographer too.

Man Ray's unique selling point as a photographer was his ability to cash in on what most would have dumped in the dark-room dustbin. Indeed, the more Man Ray messed up, the more successful he became.

His trademarks - the rayographs and the solarisations - were both discovered through slack dark-room discipline. He hit upon the merits of double exposure while accidentally kicking the camera during a session with the Marquise de Casati. And he discovered the impressionistic worth of soft focus while photographing Matisse - having forgotten to bring the more conventional photographic apparel, he ended up using his spectacles as a substitute for a lens.

But even if chance accounted for the outcome of the pictures, it needed a painter well-versed in the modernist upheaval of the early 20th century to realise their potential. Man Ray, morose, a bit of a hypochondriac and permanently broke, was none the less a tireless networker of the artistic circles of his time and was thus well-placed to know that photography was crying out for an assault of Dadaist disdain.

While painting was by now accustomed to having its conventions turned upside down, photography was not. It is, perhaps, for this reason that Man Ray received such polarised criticism: on the one hand derision for the naivete of his paintings, on the other applause for photographs in which modernist eyes were gratified to spot the height of subversive wit and sophistication.

Of course, Man Ray was in fact utterly consistent in both spheres: it was in the nature of the times that his technical looseness meant more on celluloid than it did on canvas. While in painting he had to be competent before he began subverting, in photography no such competence was necessary. All that was required was the intervention of a human hand - often a clumsy one - in a mechanistic process.

Photography, a medium hitherto used for representing the reality on the other side of a camera lens, became, under Man Ray's tutelage, a dynamic executor of the Surrealist brief that things are not what they seem. In Le Violin d'Ingres, his famous rear-view nude, he pencils in sound-hole shadows to expose the shared characteristics of the string instrument and a curvaceous female back.

It was probably his rayographs, though, that best embodied Man Ray's contribution to the Surrealist canon, and to the development of 20th-century art in general. That the rayograph was the result of a dark-room error did not deter him from patenting it as his unique brand of "Rayography". And herein lay his genius. He may have been a terrible painter, he may have been a lousy photographer, but Man Ray was unarguably a brilliant conceptual artist. It needed him to realise that a process which involved little more than strategically placing an object on a piece of paper (something that umpteen other photographers must have stumbled on themselves) could be a work of art - clearly a photograph, but a photograph that is unrecognisable as a photograph.

Man Ray's famous observation that, "La photographie n'est pas l'art" was, in many ways, a sound marketing ploy. Man Ray could condemn photography to the realm of the prosaic because he was secure in the knowledge that his own work was anything but. He was merely reserving his place in the history books as the man who gave photography its innovative creative edge. AP