Photographing the woman: Man Ray’s view of the female form
“I paint what cannot be photographed, that which comes from the imagination or from dreams, or from an unconscious drive. I photograph the things that I do not wish to paint, the things which already have an existence,”
said Man Ray (1890-1976), a visual artist primarily identified more today with his pioneering photography than his work on canvas.
“I do not photograph nature. I photograph my visions.”
Man Ray found the surreal in the commonplace, particularly in the female form, and this has made his photography some of the world’s most accessible and recognisable: his name is synonymous with moody, seductive black-and-white photographs from the interwar era (Cohen, 2020). The famous 1924 shot Le Violon d’Ingres (Ingres’s Violin) creates a cello from a French model Kiki de Montparnasse’s torso, with the addition of curlicues vents inked on her sides, connecting her body to the titular instrument. But her armless form is also disturbing to contemplate (Charles, 2013). The title seems to suggest that, while playing the violin was Ingres’s hobby, toying with Kiki was a pastime of Man Ray. The picture maintains a tension between objectification and appreciation of the female form.
Throughout his life, Man Ray happily put women on a pedestal, nurtured them, encouraged them, seduced them, loved them, objectified them and sometimes trying to control them. Many of his 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 (Martinique, 2019).
Man Ray’s relationships with specific women and his long-term fascination with the female form were expressed as raw material. Nude and draped women are a staple of art, but Surrealism often emphasised a transgressive eroticism, as in ”Spider Woman,” which combines the cool composure of a fashion model with femme-fatale symbolism, and ”Pebble,” in which a single stone is set like a nesting egg in a model’s armpit (Harrison, 2002). But unlike other Surrealists, Man Ray did not savage his female subjects. Even when fragmented, they are not butchered, suggesting an innate regard that counters Surrealism’s pervasive misogyny (Harrison, 2002).
To me, such female form were expressed through Man Ray’s own gaze throughout his career, as many women took leading roles in front of his lens; seducing the Surrealists and becoming the subjects of desire, inspiration, literature and dreams. He often reduced their bodies to torso parts of heads and transformed them with surrealist tropes – sometimes deliberate, sometimes accidental.
“Only from Man Ray could we expect the Ballad of Women of the Present Day”
wrote André Breton with regard to the female portraits by Man Ray (Martinique, 2019).
Subjected to a continuous metamorphosis of shapes and meanings, the female body in Man Ray’s work shifts from an abstract form into an object of seduction, a classic memory or realist portrait, while reflecting the time and forms of representation.
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