Man Ray playing with fashion.
Man Ray playing with fashion.

Man Ray playing with fashion.

The 1920s are often referred to as the ‘Roaring Twenties’. This adjective does not come from nowhere: it refers to a world in turmoil. The trauma of the First World War was accompanied by a great deal of deprivation, illness and death. But it was also synonymous with innovation, revolution and the explosion of frontiers.

                           Sensuality and femininity in Man Ray’s work                         


Untitled, 1925, platinum print, exhibition print made in 2003 from the 18 x 13 cm glass plate negative, Paris, Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’Art moderne.

The female body is one of the artist’s favourite subjects. Women are always very present in his work and in his life. His artistic life and his love life are impossible to disentangle, both being sources of creation. There was a real exchange with his models. Some were muses, like Kiki de Montparnasse, Nush Eluard, Juliet Browner… Others were artists, like Lee Miller and Dora Maar. Each relationship brings him a new source of inspiration, a different point of view.


                                                                                   Peggy Guggenheim, Man Ray

Well acquainted with the dreamlike surrealism of René Magritte and Joan Miró, Man Ray focused particularly on liberating the unconscious in a very Freudian way. He exposed the sensuality and expression of human desire.


                                                                                          Kiki de Montparnasse, 1930

Photography enabled her to rewrite the female body in a new way, going beyond the classical vision.

The artist gave a modern perception and wanted to make the living visible. He staged his models in elaborate compositions, remodelling light, shadows, colours and framing. Simply or ostentatiously, the artist highlights the sensuality of a body, a gesture, a look.

                                                                                                    Dora Maar, 1936.


Man Ray arrived in Paris in 1921. More than a photographer, Man Ray was one of the protagonists of Parisian artistic life between the wars, and more particularly of Surrealism. He has never been shown from the angle of his contribution to the emancipation of fashion photography. A genre that emerged in the early twentieth century and contributed to the recognition of photography as an art form in its own right. Photographs, as well as large-format original and contemporary prints, are presented in dialogue with models from the fashion houses for which the artist worked.


                                                          Elsa Schiaparelli, circa 1931 © Man Ray 2015 Trust / Adagp, Paris 2020

As soon as he arrived in Paris in 1921, Man Ray became a fashion and portrait photographer.

For twenty years, he put his freedom of tone and inventiveness to work as a professional photographer. Courted by the Tout-Paris and the fashion world, he renewed the genre and contributed to the birth of photographs emblematic of surrealism.

Man Ray claimed to want to “link art and fashion”. He was a Dadaist who aspired to the status of genius, but lived high on the hog by selling his prints to Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.

The skill of a Klapp Reflex virtuoso who, by selecting a few sublime fashion shots from his body of work, turned them into masterpieces of avant-garde photography. Such is the case with Noire et Blanche , one of the most famous, which, before joining the artist’s catalogue, was published in 1926 in the French edition of Vogue . The same sleight of hand can be seen in Les Larmes, so emblematic of Man Ray’s work as a surrealist, which in 1932 was an advertisement for Cosmecil mascara, with the slogan: “Madame, cry at the cinema, cry at the theatre, laugh with tears, without fear for your beautiful eyes”.

                                                                                                 Black and white, 1926


                                                                                                              Lee Miller

                                            Meeting with Paul Poiret.

Man Ray, artist and fashion photographer, was his calling card for almost twenty years in the Paris of the inter-war years.

It was on the advice of his mentor, Marcel Duchamp, whom he had met in New York, that Man Ray, aged 31, arrived in France in the summer of 1921 to join the Dada gang: Aragon, Breton, Éluard…


                                       Peggy Guggenheim in a Poiret’dress, 1924 © Man Ray 2015 Trust Adagp, Paris 2020

Poiret wanted to illustrate his daring toilets with new images. He wanted, he said, “original photos. Something different from the stuff fashion photographers usually supplied”. To Man Ray, this god of fashion explained in substance: “All the pictures that are presented to me are of no interest. You’re an artist, show me what you can do that’s interesting and fun”. Man Ray, who saw it as a good way of financing his studio, his brushes and his paint, was quick to reply: “I’d like to try. Poiret placed the order. He supplied the equipment he didn’t have, a projector and darkroom, but refused to pay him.

                                                                                                              Lee Miller

                                                                        Nusch Eluard, fashion photo for Elsa Schiaparelli, 1930

Chic evenings, muses and mistresses

His first mannequin, Man Ray shows her on a jumble of fabrics. A banal image. But one that the apprentice photographer would brag about. “There were lines, colour, material and above all sex appeal; instinctively I felt that this was what Poiret wanted”, he enthused. During these first sessions, he rubbed shoulders with the cream of the crop, starting with the rich and sultry Peggy Guggenheim, whom he photographed draped in a glittering dress by Poiret. Nothing exceptional: Peggy, static, holds an interminable cigarette smoker in her left hand, in accordance with the photographic codes of the time.

But Man Ray had knocked on the right door: the one that opened onto the world of haute couture and advertising.


Peggy Guggenheim in a Poiret’s dress, 1924, silver gelatine contact print10,8 x 8 cm, Paris, Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’Art moderne/Centre de création industrielle, donation in 1994

Cropping, overprinting, shadow and light effects were all created in images that Man Ray used to offer fashion a dreamlike vision. Published in magazines, these photos dictated the layout, also inspired by surrealist aesthetics.


                                                                                               Peggy Guggenheim


                                                                                    Peggy Guggenheim (Poiret’dress)

                                           Inventer la photo de mode.


Lee Miller, painting face“, circa 1930 – 1980.©private collection, courtesy Fondazione Marconi © Man Ray 2015 Trust / SABAM, Belgium 2020.

The lens of this provocative ingenue reveals the most beautiful women, which is not without displeasure for this great seducer. Worth, Patou, Alix, Augusta Bernard… the big names in couture snapped him up. Among his surrealist friends, he lived in style, ordered his costumes from London, owned a car, two workshops and a country house. Man Ray followed trends. He embraced a dual movement – that of fashion in full effervescence and photography emblematic of modernity – at the same time as symbolising them.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the American was breaking new ground. Fashion photography was still of little interest. The shots were poorly lit, the models frozen.

                                                                                                Coco Chanel, 1935

The photos are set against haute couture pieces such as Chanel dresses from the 1920s and the famous portrait of Coco Chanel, in profile, hands in pockets, cigarette in mouth, as well as never-before-seen photos of celebrities from the inter-war years dressed in Chanel.

                                                                                                      Coco Chanel, 1935

                                          Surrealism and eroticism.


                                                                                   Painted hands  by Picasso, around 1935

Through his photographs, Man Ray embodies all this. He photographed his mannequin as if he were imposing a language, surrealist, provocative and erotic.

A whiff of scandal…”. His work was as much a part of the avant-garde movements of his time as it was of the mass culture that was emerging at the time. It’s hardly surprising that he was spotted by the bosses at Harper’s Baazar.

At the turn of the 1930s, the American magazine, a global institution in the world of fashion, was making way for photography.

They were looking for new blood, artists. Something modern. Man Ray. He was hired on a five-year contract and between 1934 and 1939 was one of the best paid fashion photographers in the world.


                                                                                                             Untitled, 1930


                                                                                                   Lee Millers’ legs, 1930


Petit soir dress in printed black crepe, Elsa Schiaparelli, February 1936 collection n°104. Published in Harper’s Bazaar, March 1936, p.72d. 1936 gelatine silver print 27.8 x 22 cm Paris, Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris © Galliera / Parisienne de Photographie © Man Ray 2015 Trust / Adagp, Paris 2020


The Pavillon de l’Elégance, International Exhibition of Decorative and Industrial Arts. Apollo” evening dress by Jeanne Lanvin, 1925


                                                                                        Model for Harper’s Bazaar, 1933


Hair, 1929, gelatine silver print, late print 28.7 x 19.5 Milan, Fondazione Marconi © private collection, courtesy Fondazione Marconi © Man Ray 2015 Trust / Adagp, Paris 2020

                                                Everyday equivocation.

                                                                                                       Ingres’s violin, 1924

Underneath the allure of a socialite who, as a dilettante, is a dandy at parties, Man Ray was a hard worker who learned on the job and toiled in his studio.

In 1921, his experience consisted of a few reproductions of his paintings and those of his Surrealist friends. When he took up Paul Poiret’s challenge, he was a rookie. His first photographs were in the style of the post-World War I period: images frozen in an artificial setting. He took whatever he could get his hands on. Wrought iron to illustrate a subject and to light the model, he fiddled with a projector that didn’t light anything and blew the fuses. Little by little, he revealed himself to be a formidable technician.


Anatomies, 1930, gelatine-silver print 29 x 22.55 cm, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Département des Estampes et de la Photographie © BnF © Man Ray 2015 Trust / Adagp, Paris 2020

Man Ray is all about equivocation.

An artist who refused to be labelled a fashion photographer, describing himself as a “fautographe”. An artist who manipulates his images to the very limits of reality. “With a bit of practice, fashion photography will soon no longer be a mystery to me”, says the proud man. So he duplicates, demarcates and distorts. He writes on contact sheets, marks part of a face with a felt-tip pen, inverts negatives, retouches bodies and faces in pencil to hide imperfections, colours, plays with light and shadow.

Inadvertently opening the door of his darkroom during development, he is said to have invented solarisation, which he used to accentuate the contours of faces, experimenting with it endlessly until 1940. Paris was occupied by the Nazis, and he returned to the United States. Although Harper’s Baazar was expecting him in New York, he preferred Los Angeles. Rich and famous, he no longer wanted to hear about photography. That minor art… Man Ray wanted to paint and declared, after making the most of it: “Photography is not art.


                                                                                   Photo for Harper’ Bazaar Years

Tears, 1932, silver gelatine print, modern print. 25 x 31 cm. Paris, private collection

Man Ray’s “Tears” is an icon of surrealist photography.

This photograph by Man Ray was originally a simple advertisement. For mascara: “le cosmecil” by Arlette Bernard, which appeared in magazines of the time with the slogan: “Cry at the cinema, cry at the theatre, laugh to tears, without fear for your beautiful eyes…”.

                                               Tears, 1932, silver gelatine print, modern print. 25 x 31 cm. Paris, private collection

In 1932, Man Ray posed Lydie, a model and French can-can dancer. She wore a lot of make-up and her eyelashes were dizzyingly long. On her face, the artist added small pearls of glycerine, simulating tears. Later, he reframed the photo and published it in a book, his photograph becoming a work of art in its own right.

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