Man's Men: Portraits of Men by Man Ray
From May 2 through June 30, 2006, Zabriskie Gallery exhibits an assortment of portraits of men by Man Ray. Through his technical mastery and his socialite hobnobbery, Man Ray’s portraits of men are among the finest photographic portraits of men. Collectively, his portraits of men paint a warm picture of the social elite with whom Man Ray surrounded himself.
It is a reflection on Man Ray’s work and life that he portrays men and women in strikingly different lights. Man Ray’s iconic images of women – from Lee Miller’s ubiquitous lips (Les Amoureux) to Kiki’s back in Violin d’Ingres – drip with sexuality and objectification of the subject. Though of course there are examples of deeply personal portraits of women, Man’s portraits of men are of a different cloth altogether. Perhaps Kiki could be used as a mere instrument, or Miller’s lips could be appliquéd onto purses and book-covers, but Erik Satie and Max Ernst would certainly not submit themselves to such de-personalization. As a 1930s precursor to Andy Warhol, Man Ray’s love affair with celebrity informed both his oeuvre as well as his social climbing. Upon his arrival in Europe in 1921, Man Ray quickly integrated himself (partly by means of his friendship with Marcel Duchamp, partly by his general agreeability) into the Paris artistic community, and quickly became one of the most commercially successful portraitists on the scene. His portraits of men testify, if nothing else, to the singularity and importance of each sitter. To sit for Man Ray was an exclusive luxury, for his technical brilliance and his elite circle of friends.
Whatever social laurel was conferred upon the sitter, Man Ray certainly used his camera to build relationships and secure his station in the constellation of movers-and-shakers in Paris. Though many portraits of celebrities and socialites were commissioned, as was that of James Joyce (shortly before the publication of Ulysses), Man Ray did many portraits of his friends and other respected artists of his own accord. Picasso had invited Man Ray to simply photograph his work, but an extra plate left over after the session gave Ray the opportunity create a powerful portrait.
Though his portraits of men lack the objectifying impersonality of some of the female counterparts, Man often managed to squeeze his Dadaist sensibilities into his compositions. Ranging from the simple portrayal of the handsome Georges Hugnet to the peculiar four-frame image of Max Ernst, Man Ray’s handprints are in these images in his sense of style and absurdity. His experiments with solarization (as in the portrait of Georges Braques, among others) and collage (as with the portrait of Jean Cocteau) are ripe with his characteristic mischievousness, to say nothing of his theatrical portraits of himself and of Duchamp’s Rrose Selavy. If a hint of egotism is detectable in some of his romantically-staged self-portraits, it is re-worked with deadpan humor in Self-portrait (half unshaven face).
Ultimately, the portraits sketch a landscape of the great personalities of the era, from a young Jean Cocteau of 1922, to Edward Steichen in 1947, while at the same time leaving the imprint of the mysterious, fame-absorbed artist who created them.