Dorothea Tanning, photographed by Man Ray in 1942
Dorothea Tanning, photographed by Man Ray in 1942

Although he is now more famous as a photographer than for anything else he did, Man Ray maintained all his life an ambivalent attitude to photography. He wrote often about its contradictions and gave many interviews alluding to them. Always slightly defensive about the medium, ironical about its own importance to him, he told a curator in 1966 that “It’s the subject alone that makes the interest of the photograph.”

His career in fact coincided pretty closely with the great explosion in magazine publishing. Born Emmanuel Radnitzky in Philadelphia in 1890, settling in Paris in 1921, he was a commercial magazine photographer, although not by any means too grand to take commissions for private pieces to sit in silver frames on the pianos of the bourgeoisie, too. He was also, of course, a restlessly questing artist, a surrealist and dadaist brave enough to push boundaries – but he always made sure that he was quite excellent at making acceptable portraits of celebrities.

A lot of the portraits in the National Portrait Gallery’s show (there are 150) are dull. It is not iconoclastic to say so, nor does it imply the curator was wrong to include them: Man Ray earned a very good living at different times making solid, inoffensive portraits of the people in the cultural news. See in this show a page of contact prints of Génica Athanasiou from 1926: the photographer is mildly desperate, shuffling stodgy poses around in indifferent lighting and scribbling in pencil for an inspiration that just won’t come. Look carefully at his famous “Surrealist checkerboard” and it’s no more than 20 mugshots arranged by background white against black. Sure, the mugs are those of Picasso and Breton and Eluard and Magritte and their pals, but the photography is no more than ordinary.

It goes without saying that Man Ray often rose far above this level. He loved women and sex, and managed to photograph that enthusiasm with neither vulgarity nor repetition. It is often impossible to tell that this or that male dullard in tweed is photographed by Man Ray at all. A 1923 portrait of Stravinsky – desperately looking skywards, apparently dying for his taxi to come and take him away – could be by any competent professional of the time. But Man Ray’s women, even when the pictures are less successful, are rarely like that. He’s interested in women, enjoys their company. Many of Man Ray’s pictures of women have become archetypes of a certain kind of photographer’s gaze ever since: voyeuristic without being too cruel, randy without being coarse.

Man Ray happily put women on a pedestal, and just as happily picnicked with them in the nude. A study of Dorothea Tanning (the American surrealist who married Max Ernst in a famous double wedding shared with Man Ray himself and his wife Juliet), frames her carefully in a complex set of subsidiary frames. Man Ray has elaborately reworked a missing shadow for her in pencil – and it’s only late that we see why he bothered. A curious photographic effect has given her the appearance of a quite serious “wardrobe malfunction”, her nipple seemingly uncovered. There’s Man Ray in an instant: going right at the earthy and the rude, but doing it with humour and no smirk.

Man Ray had a great gift for cutting out the extraneous. Graphic simplicity and psychological directness are his watchwords. At its best, that gave big meaning to little signs. To photograph Le Corbusier, a simple shadow of a tripod, no doubt already present in the studio, is enough to gesture at structure and order, the core attributes of the great architectural proselytiser. A wonderful picture of Man Ray’s girlfriend, the photographer Lee Miller, with a circus performer is just her great model’s legs stretching endlessly above the little person sitting beneath them.

Again and again, Man Ray returns to simple themes – clasped hands or the shadows of gauze and the contours they made on a nude. When he plays with dreams, he does so in a very plain fashion. No great angst, no doubt. Have an idea, boil it down, make the picture. See his magisterial portrait of Schoenberg from 1923: the lighting isn’t complex, nor is the pose or the setting. It’s a very German portrait that could be by Helmar Lerski, searching for psychological truth in an almost phrenological relief map of the head.

Small wonder that Man Ray became so influential: these are traits that have gone a long way in photography. Stripping things down, devotedly modernist, commitedly against everything pictorial or narrative. Man Ray didn’t necessarily invent those traits, but he did a lot to purify and market them.

In the 1970s, when people were struggling to find the vocabulary by which photographers could be considered artists, Man Ray was the first name to qualify. In Paris, he had been treated as one of themselves by the most obviously artistic in-crowd of the century. He invented certain expressive photographic techniques. He was responsible for many of the “iconic” photographs that everybody knows. But maybe this exhibition turns all that on its head. Maybe it was his craftsmanship that we have come to admire, his workmanlike availability and directness.

Outside the gallery is a famous self-portrait of Man Ray on a banner. He is in shirtsleeves, twiddling a lens: it’s the portrait of an artisan, hard at work. It is in that plain simple direct clear-sightedness that his universal appeal lies.

Until May 27, then touring,

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