Man Ray-Lee Miller exhibit highlights unique era in photography

By Michael Raffety


When I think about notable names who influenced photography in fundamental ways three names come to mind immediately, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen and Man Ray.

Alfred Stieglitz published the magazine Camera Work from 1903-1917. It featured the work of photographer Edward Steichen more than any other. Then the pair opened the  in New York the “Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession,” later known simply as Gallery 291. The gallery brought Impressionism to the U.S. as well as Picasso and Brancusi. Others exhibited and promoted by Stieglitz included Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams.

Steichen single-handedly created the elite combat photographer corps of the military, overseeing military photo operations in World War I and World War II. He is most famous for creating the Family of Man exhibit in 1955 when he was director of the department of Photography at the New York Museum of Modern Art. That exhibit was seen by 9 million people and the book sold 2.5 million copies.

Steichen has a connection to Man Ray. As a fashion photographer he photographed Lee Miller, who had been discovered by Condé Nast. Lee Miller later became Man Ray’s girlfriend and then photographic collaborator.

Photographs and other artwork by Man Ray and Miller are now featured in a show at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco that will continue through Oct. 14.

The story of how Miller became a fashion model and later wound up on Man Ray’s doorstep in Paris is a fascinating one as told by Phillip Prodger, PhD, curator of photography for the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass, and creator of this show.

Miller was working in the Art Students League as a painter in New York. While walking she was almost run over by a truck, but was saved by none other than fashion publisher Condé Nast, and then “she fainted in his arms.” The publisher of Vogue and Vanity Fair, among other magazines, decided she had a model’s face and sent her over to Steichen’s studio.

Miller’s modeling career lasted from 1926-27. It ended after one of her photographs was used for an ad for Kotex. Steichen advised her to find a mentor.

She traveled to Paris in 1929 with the intention of being an apprentice to surrealist painter and photographer Man Ray. The apprenticeship lasted six months and then they became lovers and collaborators.

At some point during this affair, which ended in 1932, Miller set up her own Paris photography studio, taking Man Ray’s fashion assignments so he could concentrate on painting.

Man Ray, his preferred name and a shortened version of Emmanuel Radnitzky, is especially famous for his Rayographs and solarized prints. The rediscovery of the Sabatier effect by Man Ray and Miller really marked Man Ray’s photography as important. His “Rayographs” were not a new technique but his choice of objects to place for exposure on a piece of photographic paper were pure Dada. His solarizations and three-dimensional conceptions were surrealist.

It was a tempestuous relationship between two headstrong people. Lee Miller broke it off in 1932 and returned to New York. Man Ray was heartbroken. Curator Prodger said Man Ray was so disconsolate he was known to go over to her former studio and howl in the rain.

The poster for the show — Man Ray, Lee Miller, Partners in Surrealism —  has two sides, both of which represent his sense of loss. Though he had a lengthy earlier affair with Kiki de Montparnasse (Alice Prin), it was Miller for whom he longed the rest of his life, writing in 1975, “I love you.” One side of the show poster shows a women’s face with costume jewels on her face in imitation of tears. The other side shows Lee Miller’s lips superimposed on a painting, floating in the sky above a landscape. He used her eyes and lips in a number of works afterward. The two images were among his post-breakup works. Even after the breakup she inspired.

The Parisian friends of Miller and Ray included Picasso, Dora Maar, Max Ernst, Paul Éluard, Alexander Calder, Le Corbusier, Marcel Duchamp and Roland Penrose.

By the way, in a room next the downstairs cafeteria, the Legion is putting on a rare display of its Duchamp masterpiece, the Bax in the Valise. It is a must-see, shown in conjunction with the Man Ray/Miller show.

In 1932 Miller married an Egyptian who was buying railway equipment for the Egyptian Railway. She left Cairo in 1937, returning to Paris, where she took up with British surrealist painter Roland Penrose.

During the war Man Ray returned to the U.S., where the Legion of Honor in 1941 hosted his very first show in the U.S. Meanwhile Lee Miller was on assignment for Vogue covering the London Blitz. Then she became an accredited war photographer by the U.S. military. This show includes some of her surrealistic images of the London Blitz and dead Nazis in the German city of Leipzig. She also photographed the liberation of Paris, the battle for Alsace and the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau, though few of these are part of this exhibit.

In 1946 Miller and Penrose traveled to the U.S., visiting Man Ray in California. Learning she was pregnant, she divorced the Egyptian and married Penrose. Antony Penrose was born in 1947.

Man Ray met a dancer and artist’s model named Juliet Browner. After living together they were married in 1946, He returned to Paris in 1951 with Juliet.

How the work of these two artists came to be preserved is a fascinating story.

All the works of Miller are held and promoted by her son.

“After she died we found boxes of photos in the barn,” Tony Penrose said at a press preview for the Miller/Man Ray show. “I worked on that material for 35 years.”

He also wrote a biography of his mother.

“When I saw Phillip’s show at the Peabody I was deeply impressed,” Penrose said. “Thank you for having my parents and my old friend Man Ray. Being in the gallery is like being with old friends.”

The Man Ray works are also from the Penrose collection.

The preservation of Man Ray’s work is a different story. The iconic glass tears photo on the poster is on loan from a private collection, which the Wall Street Journal May 11 identified as John Pritzker of San Francisco. It was the first photograph to sell for $1 million.

Juliet Man Ray, as she called herself, lived in Man Ray’s Paris studio after his death in 1976. Working with her brothers, Eric and Greg Browner, she set up a trust to handle Man Ray’s work. Greg moved to Paris and passed out business cards that read, “Greg Browner, Man Ray’s Brother-in-law.'”

Juliet died in 1991. The Man Ray Trust, to settle the estate taxes with the French government, gave about 12,000 glass negatives and 6,000 contact prints at a value of $2.5 million. The Pompidou Center is still sorting through that, according to the Wall Street Journal.

In 1995 the trust sold 550 works for $5.9 million through Sotheby’s auction house in London.

The balance of Man Ray’s collection of 4,500 works sits in vaults in the Long Island auto upholstery shop of Eric Browner. It is valued at $20 million and will go to a museum with the money to pay the price.

The Man Ray photos on display at the Legion are the tip of the iceberg, but they and Miller’s photos are engaging portraits and nudes that set a standard for the genre. Also included are paintings by Man Ray and paintings by their circle of friends. The show totals 115 photographs, paintings, drawings, sculpture and manuscripts.

Admission to the special exhibit is $5 in addition to the $10 adult admission fee to the Legion of Honor. The catalog at 160 pages is $39.95.


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