Never Judge a Photographer by a Single Image

So many times photographers are depicted by a single photograph. They are either asked to provide a single image which best represents their work or their direction, or in the case of those no longer with us, publishers, editors and writers select an image which they believe best sums up the artist and their body of work.

Many years ago when I first started discovering all the big names in photography, I was overwhelmed by the task and would rely on this single image to draw me in and lead me on a journey to explore further images. I recall the first time I encountered Man Ray; he was described as a surrealist, a painter, a photographer and a sculptor. The first image I saw was one of his solarised portraits and if I recall correctly, the second image I saw was also a solarised portrait. Whilst I could appreciate the contribution of the surrealists in the world of art and I could recognise solarised images importance within the history of photography, the aesthetics of these first images were not enough to draw me in further and I gently moved Man Ray aside in order to spend time with other photographers.

Why I never went back to him I’m not sure, but thankfully I found myself in London this March. As I sat in the café of the Photographer’s Gallery flicking through Time Out: London, I was reminded that the exhibition Man Ray Portraits was being shown at the National Portrait Gallery and so I thought it was time to revisit him.

The Man Ray I found there exceeded my expectations. Once the crowds of viewers moved out of my eye line, a new world revealed itself. Portrait after portrait pulled me in and I found it hard to move my gaze from one portrait to the next. Whilst my mind was hungry for the knowledge in the accompanying text, my eyes refused to spend their time on words, they just wanted to feast on the visual splendour of each photograph. I must have stood in front of Pablo Picasso (Plate 18) for the longest time, the sense of ‘greatness’ was almost palpable; a sense repeated again and again as you meet Matisse (Pl.57), Huxley (Pl. 109) and Chanel (Pl. 107) to name but a few.

I also found myself halted in front of a portrait of Lee Miller, taken in man Ray’s Rue Campagne-Premiere Studio (Pl. 77). The composition, the softness, the beauty, all absorb into a level of intimacy in spite of Miller’s distant gaze. It’s as if Man Ray has been able to draw a line around the scene in front of him, disconnect it from the world and pull it into his camera.

Some of Man Ray’s colour work is also part of this exhibition and one portrait particularly stood out for me, that of Juliette Greco (Pl. 143). On the gallery wall it is a tiny photograph but its size is disproportionate to its power. Hung in a corner, it can be difficult to view on a busy day, but once a glimpse of it is caught you cannot leave until you have seen it; it won’t let you leave until you have looked.  

I end where I began, once again gazing on Pablo, an older man now, with white hair (Pl. 149).

However it doesn’t really end there, for I am compelled to start again from the beginning and so I spend time with each one in turn. On my third circuit I let myself drift around, let my gaze wander and it was then I started to notice how comfortable they all look. With the exception of one or two, the subjects all look so at ease and this must be testament to Man Ray; what was it he did or said as they modelled before him? In some photographs it’s as if Man Ray wasn’t even in the same room, as if he has been able to see that which would not ordinarily have been seen; moments of private thought which only occur when no one is watching.

It is fair to say I reluctantly left the exhibition; it was an experience I did not want to end and I congratulate the team at NPG for a successful user experience. I also wish to congratulate the spirit of collaboration that went into making this exhibition possible. To go from an idea, to a vision and to have so many people, organisations and institutions willing to support that vision through to the end, is commendable. Great things are possible when we collaborate.

Man Ray is quoted as saying “A creator needs only one enthusiast to justify him”; on that basis Man Ray, consider yourself justified, for I am an enthusiast.

The Man Ray Portraits exhibition is on until 27th May 2013 at the National Portrait Gallery, London. Curated by Terrence Pepper, it is part of the NPG’s continuing series on the Masters of Portrait Photography. The 224 page exhibition catalogue is available at the Gallery shop and online in both soft and hardback editions (priced £25/£35).

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