I recently had the pleasure of seeing a fantastic exhibit at the Legion of Honor in the Presidio, here in San Francisco. The show dealt with the complicated, and quite artistically productive, relationship of the photographers Man Ray and Lee Miller – both American ex-pats living in Paris in the late 1920’s and 1930’s. Man Ray, born Emmanuel Radnitzky to immigrant parents in Philadelphia, is famous for his novel techniques involving “camera-less” photography and re-exposure of already-exposed negatives. He is also an important member of the early 20th century Dada and Surrealism movements. Lee Miller, born in upstate New York, began her career as a model – famously ornamenting the covers of Vogue after her discovery at age 19 in Manhattan by the media baron Condé Nast.
Man Ray and Lee Miller met in Paris in the late 1920’s, when Miller began to explore a career in photography from the other side of the lens. Ray and Miller were alternately student and pupil, artist and muse, passionate and estranged lovers. During a brief period, from 1929 through 1932, each made beautiful, unique, photographs , pushing the boundaries both with technique and aesthetics. My favorite of Miller’s photographs (excluding her deep, pensive, even shocking photojournalism during the second World War), is a portrait of Nimet Bey (http://realityayslum.tumblr.com/post/27564888627/lee-miller-nimet-bey-profile-1931). Rendered in a warm black and white, the subject’s features are intensely sensuous – her lips are full but delicate, her nose is strong but refined, and her dark brow has the perfect thickness and arch against her alabaster skin.
The most famous images from Man Ray add an edge of surrealism – “Larmes (tears)” for example (http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/man-ray/larmes-tears). After spending some time with the works, however, I found myself returning to the pictures in which Ray had focused his technical virtuosity (and emotional obsession) on his muse: Lee Miller. His 1929 photograph of her neck, extended in profile and gently turned away from the observer, is subtle and sensual at the same time, with a crisp jawline and sweeping contour. A similar beauty can be found in the masculine counterpart in Man Ray’s portrait of Marcel Duchamp two years later.
For more images and information, please visit the Lee Miller (http://www.leemiller.co.uk/) and Man Ray archives (http://www.manray-photo.com/catalog/index.php).