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Man Ray’s mother-of-pearl faces

Man Ray’s mother-of-pearl faces

An elegant exhibition surveys Man Ray’s photographic work in the world of fashion in the mid-1920s. A beautiful gallery of muses is on view at the Cantini Museum in Marseille.

Elsa Schiaparelli, circa 1934, Original print © Man Ray

Some environments inspire work and help to hone it; foster experimentation, while challenging the work process. This is no doubt the role the world of fashion played in the development of the young Man Ray in the early 1920s. The artist—born Emmanuel Radnitzky—quickly gained a reputation in this milieu populated by aesthetes and wealthy clients.

The world of fashion was a springboard for Man Ray, as well as a comfortable landing pad, saving him from the poverty artist usually suffer. “[It] made it possible for him to develop and implement his own approach,” observed Claude Miglietti, the exhibition’s curator, who emphasized the importance of Surrealism at that time.

Untitled, circa 1935. Original print retouched © Man Ray

Lee Miller

The young photographer left New York for Paris in July 1921. On the advice of Paul Poiret, he began working for various fashion magazines, such as VogueVanity Fair, and even the American Harper’s Bazaar. He mainly did portraits of famous models, such as Peggy Guggenheim and Kiki de Montparnasse. The latter would briefly become his lover.

“Man Ray loved women and enjoyed working in the presence of intimate companions,” said Claude Miglietti, noting that the photographer Lee Miller, who became Man Ray’s model and muse, helped him print his photographs. “In those days, the boundaries between art, fashion, and the people who worked with him were porous,” explained the curator.

Cut bust for Harper’s Bazaar, 1936. Original print © Man Ray

Soft focus

To create what could be called “mother-of-pearl” faces, to borrow the phrase from the title of one photograph, Man Ray placed his camera at a considerable distance from his model. The “empty space” thus opened up between the photographed subject and the photographer helped to attenuate the authoritarian position of the camera in the room and give the subjects greater leeway to express themselves.

“Look at the negatives: they clearly show the distance between him and the subject, and how he cropped his shots,” pointed out Miglietti. Indeed, while Man Ray photographed from afar, he would later crop his pictures, thus enlarging the model’s face at will. “With this approach, the more the image was enlarged, the less sharp it would get,” explained Miglietti. This is the source of the soft focus which predominates in the portraits of these women: they seem to be caressed by the camera, as if veiled in a delicate mist that covers up the imperfections of the flesh.

Fashion photography, superimposition circa 1935 © Man Ray


In addition to developing this singular approach, Man Ray managed to experiment on the fashion scene with every aspect of the medium: solarization, negative (“inverted”) images, cutouts, multiple exposures… He used his various commissions to push photography to the limits and test innovative forms and colors. Visitors to the exhibition will be able to explore a cropping technique invented by the artist, namely folding a print until it is cropped just right—a whimsical hands-on activity that obliges you to manipulate a photograph.

The exhibition also focuses on Man Ray’s other areas of interest, such as jewelry design—there is a beautiful pair of earrings on display—and creation of surrealist objects. The latter include an iron studded with nails which the artist used in a film rehearsal to iron a dancer’s dress, producing a tattered gown—an example of surrealist subversion in the service of fashion imagery. That is Man Ray in a nutshell.

Fashion photography, circa 1935. Original print © Man Ray

Elsa Schiaparelli, around 1933. Original print © Man Ray

Marie-Laure de Noailles in costume, 1928 © Man Ray

By Jean-Baptiste Gauvin

Man Ray and Fashion

November 8, 2019 to March 8, 2020

Musée Cantini, 19 rue Grignan, 13006 Marseille

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