Magical Realism

Susie Linfield is a contributing writer to Book Review and teaches in the cultural reporting and criticism department at New York University

Man Ray was a trickster. Like many of his Dadaist and Surrealist friends, he regarded representing, reproducing and recording reality as old-fashioned, prosaic, even servile. The fun--and there is nothing if not fun in Man Ray's work--lay in fragmenting, distorting, manipulating, questioning, subverting, blurring and playing with the real world (and the viewer's perceptions of it). Through his use (and in some cases, possible creation) of a wide range of avant-garde techniques--including solarization, rayographs and superimposition--he proved that photography need not concern itself with literal representation, but can evoke a more mysterious world. "I'm not a photographer of nature, but of my own imagination," claimed Man Ray, who was born Emmanuel Radnitzky in Philadelphia in 1890 and died in Paris 86 years later.

Though the creative energy of Man Ray's experimental photographs is indisputable, it is his straightforward--dare I say classic?--works that are the most compelling, especially his prints of the female nude. Man Ray never depicted the body as a temple; it could therefore never be defiled, only enjoyed. Thus the lush pleasure of his photos of Lee Miller's breasts (circa 1930), or of his stout and lovely mistress Kiki in 1923. (Though even here the reality principle was apparently tampered with: Kiki was embarrassed by her lack of pubic hair, so Man Ray gallantly sketched some in on the photographic plate.) Classic, too, is the utilitarian beauty of an eggbeater titled, simply, "Woman" (1920; previous title: "Man") and the austerely luminous portraits of the Surrealist painter Yves Tanguy (1936).

"Photography and Its Double," a collection of essays by European critics that accompanied a huge Man Ray show organized by Paris' Centre Georges Pompidou last year, makes much of the fact that Man Ray's mythic reliance on chance and spontaneity was just that: myth. Instead, these critics argue, Man Ray framed, composed and cropped his photos carefully. The photographer is quoted as saying of his portraits: "Naturalness? It's the height of artifice! I give all the orders, directing everything." But Man Ray was referring here, perhaps contemptuously, to the paying clients--society figures and tourists--who flocked to his studio, and whom he didn't hesitate to manipulate; it's quite possible, though, that his striking studies of modernist contemporaries such as Jean Cocteau, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot were the result of more spontaneous shoots.

Ultimately, though, it doesn't really matter what Man Ray said about his methods, because it's generally agreed that he often lied about them. It also doesn't matter because Man Ray's art, not any explication of it, continues to draw us to him. The photographer knew that this would be the case. "All opinion is transient," he once wrote, "and all work is permanent."

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